The Adaptive Leader As Facilitator of Change

March 10, 2015 By Katherine Tyler Scott

Ki ThoughtBridge works with individuals, organizations, and entire communities teaching and equipping them to lead change in an integrated manner.  We provide a range of resources and tools that we teach others to use.  It is difficult and very rewarding work, and we are passionate about doing the best work with our clients.  Part of the challenge is that the change management process begins with a description of symptoms that are causing us discomfort and disease. 

We have ideas about what might be causing the problem; we listen to the client’s self-diagnosis and attempted remedies, and what the impact was.  We listen intently to the description of the presenting problem because in the narrative is information that will enable resolution. When the problem is clearly defined and the recommendations diligently followed the symptoms usually subside. When the problem is simple the diagnosis and the result are easier to obtain.  It is when more complicated and complex symptoms are presented that the process must adapt.
Most of the problems we hear are not simple or easy. Our clients present symptoms that demand thorough data gathering, analysis and diagnosis. They have already used their ample capabilities in the pursuit of a solution. They recognize the need for additional expertise in examining the problem and understanding it in a larger systemic context. The request for help must be viewed as more than a message “to fix the problem;” it is a request for change. We know that if we can get our clients through the very change phases about which we teach, their capacity to handle adaptive challenges now and in the future will be immeasurably improved. 
Diagnosis is the beginning of adaptive work.  In doing it we are confronted with profound and conflicting truths.  As we move from presenting symptoms to a clear and definitive diagnosis of the problem the leader’s role is that of facilitator.

Twelve Ways Leaders Assume Role of Facilitator in the Change Process

There are twelve ways leaders can assume this role in the change process: 
  1. First, adaptive leaders must have a construct of what organizational health looks like. They must identify and teach the habits and practices that not only are likely to achieve the vision but will enable it to maintain health throughout its existence.
  2. The adaptive leader as facilitator must ensure that the internal structural and operational systems are aligned with the core values of the organization. It is such alignment that builds trust in the integrity of the leader and the organization.
  3. The adaptive leader understands the organization as a living, breathing organism with the capacity for both health and illness, and is able to identify and articulate the warning signs – “symptoms” – as threats to the health and well-being of the system.
  4. This type of leader, no matter how smart and sophisticated or how capable they are at forming a quick assessment of what underlies troubling symptoms, will always allow for other possible explanations beyond, and sometimes even in conflict with, their conclusion.  What we have learned from our change work is that there are many places in a culture where anxiety and fear lurk.  What keeps these potentially corrosive emotions at a manageable level is a leader with a clear vision, an understanding of the overarching purpose, and the capacity to convey focused direction.  These capacities provide a strong sense of security and meaning to followers, which transcend the tendency towards compartmentalization and fragmentation.
  5. In healthy organizations where the adaptive leader is also a facilitator of change, challenges precipitated during the process of change are perceived as ultimately solvable.  In those situations in which the leader is reacting to change, there is less confidence in the organization’s internal capacity to deal with troublesome issues.  The presenting symptoms seem to take on a life of their own, fueling the anxiety and enticing the leader into a cycle of reactivity that prevents wiser judgment and prudent responses.
  6. The adaptive leader as facilitator becomes a primary instrument through which an organization can be freed to use its capability to change. Their expertise and experience engenders trust and confidence that inspires responsible and timely action. They are authentic and real. The adaptive leader models the risk taking behaviors that will be needed and knows that failure has valuable lessons for future action.
  7. The adaptive leader as facilitator seeks outside consultation and assistance in reading reality in times of stability as well as in times of crisis.  The paradox here is that the capacity to periodically evaluate the culture minimizes the opportunity for crisis in it.  But if and when crisis does occur the leader has the presence and patience to withstand the pressure “to fix something” before being clear about what the something is.
  8. The adaptive leader as facilitator selects and equips an internal change team to work as a cohesive group with a shared vision and to develop a plan for strategic implementation.  The change team must be united in its knowledge, history, character, and understanding of the culture of the organization. A Ki ThoughtBridge resource, “TimeScape”®, is often used to facilitate this level of understanding and cohesion. The important lesson is that every organization has a history of responding to change and knowing this history can assist the change team to intervene in ways that diminish anxiety and increase trust.  It also is a reminder that change is not the enemy; denial that it exists or quick fix responses are.
  9. We continue to tell leaders that no matter how skilled they are as communicators whatever they normally do will be insufficient during the process of change.  They must find many and varied ways to send the message they want employees to internalize and integrate.  Communication is easily distorted and garbled during change. The leader facilitates clarity in communication and ensures that what is being said is aligned with what the organization is doing and what its core values are.  If the leader says the organization values open, honest opinions, then those who express themselves openly and honestly cannot be penalized. When desired behavior happens, it should be reinforced through recognition and reward.
  10. The adaptive leader as facilitator sets the example of recognizing and rewarding the “new way” of doing things.  Specific benchmarks of progress are noted and celebrated.  There is outward and visible affirmation, and public notation of progress toward the desired goal.  Change of any significance will take time. The reality is the phases of change we teach, while real, do not occur in an orderly sequential fashion.
  11. The adaptive leader who is a facilitator of change must step back from the work occasionally to gain a view of a whole system and to anticipate the impact of the change initiative. Leaders cannot see the whole when they stay immersed in the day-to-day activities.  From time to time they must relinquish the managerial tendency to see only the parts and look at the relationship between the parts.  The geometric axiom that the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is a truth that is valuable to remember.
  12. When most in an organization share the vision, and are ready for implementation, a different leadership behavior is needed.  There is a need to pause, celebrate, and embrace success, but there must be incentive to continue the work of integrating the change so that it is sustainable. In fact, the adaptive work of the leader as facilitator is to ensure alignment between values and actions and integration of the change in policy and practice.  Keeping the energy and commitment of followers high at this point is paramount; and helping those involved understand what happened and what they learned in the process will serve the organization well in managing change in the future.  As Peter Senge reminds us, “Most advocates of change initiatives focus on the changes they are trying to produce and fail to recognize the importance of learning capabilities.” Reflecting on learning is an investment in the capacity to lead change.


Leading change is no easy matter. It requires a high level of training, skill, patience, and perseverance to see the process through to completion. It is an especially important role. In assuming it the leader is reminded that leadership is not just the action of one individual no matter how competent and prescient they may be. It involves the capacity to engage others in adaptive change. When adaptive leaders claim the role of facilitator of change it increases the capacity of others and improves the chances for success. 
The adaptive skill of facilitation is one we help to equip leaders to lead change.  This ability is an important adaptive capacity that recognizes the change process as an integrative process relying on both art and skill.  It allows predictability and spontaneity to co-exist in the process of reaching the desired goal.  Facilitation as an adaptive leadership skill has not received much the attention it deserves. We know from considerable experience that investing in developing this skill contributes to the success of any change effort.