When I was a little boy, I started my first consulting company. I made a long sign out of construction paper that read, “Justin Follin and Associates: We Solve Problems.” I taped it to my bedroom door and waited for the clients to come streaming in.

But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in this field is that giving good advice is not always the same as problem solving. Actually, I’ve seen that the compulsion to give advice often gets in the way of solving the really tough challenges.

Why is that?


In their seminal and oft-cited 1997 Harvard Business Review article, “The Work of Leadership,” Harvard’s Ron Heifetz and CEO Donald Laurie distinguish two kinds of challenges: technical challenges and adaptive challenges.

Technical challenges are those with known solutions. Get the right expert in place, and there’s a good chance the problem can be solved based on how it’s been done in the past.

But adaptive challenges, they say, are systemic in nature. There are no known, guaranteed solutions. Because the challenge itself is so complex, it will require new ways of doing things to solve it. An adaptive challenge usually occurs among people, and almost always will be marred with uncertainty. In fact, it’s often the case that with an adaptive challenge, we don’t even know what the problem really is.

According to Heifetz and Laurie, “We see adaptive challenges every day at every level of the workplace–when companies restructure or reengineer, develop or implement strategy, or merge businesses. We see adaptive challenges when marketing has difficulty working with operations, when cross-functional teams don’t work well, or when senior executives complain, ‘We don’t seem to be able to execute effectively.’”

In short, the work of organizational leadership itself must be adaptive. When a company scales and cross-functional teams get more disparate, even the founder has entered into unknown territory.

Still, I see the tendency among managers in these environments to try to solve the adaptive challenges of their employees by giving what would amount to technical advice. Usually, their technical advice begins with, “What you should do is …” In a nutshell, this is the kind of advice that squelches the uncertainty of not knowing what to do.

This makes sense. Uncertainty causes what neuroscientists call cognitive dissonance. According to the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, “The theory of cognitive dissonance is elegantly simple: it states that inconsistency between two cognitions creates an aversive state akin to hunger or thirst that gives rise to a motivation to reduce the inconsistency.”

When we’re hungry, we’re uncomfortable and need to eat. When a situation does not have a clear-cut solution, we are similarly, biologically driven to try to reduce this dissonance. We are, as humans, compelled to bring certainty back to uncertain situations. Technical advice makes the future seem a little less uncertain in the short run (and, admittedly, it can feel really good to give).

But in cross-functional organizations, as Heifetz and Laurie point out, uncertainty and adaptation are the name of the game. For a leader to guide their team through an adaptive challenge, it’s often not advice they need to give. It’s the know-how and comfort to maneuver through uncertainty.

As I can attest, even a seven-year-old can give pretty good advice. But the expertise to really approach a complex problem requires the humility to admit that you may have no idea what to do — or even what the scope of the problem really is.

Step one in this art of problem solving: Instead of saying, “What you should do is …”, a leader in an adaptive environment asks, “Do we really know what the problem is? What more do we need to learn?”