Are you Technical or Adaptive?

I came across a very interesting article in the Harvard Business Review the other day. (Full disclosure: I wasn't reading the HBR, but I was reading a PDF that made reference to that article!).

The key insight behind the article is one I had come across before. It is described with reference to organizations, and implicitly large organizations, but it also has great resonance to us individuals working on our IM businesses. It is about Technical problems vs. Adaptive Challenges

This is all about recognizing the complexity of our environment and understanding it in a different way than we may be used to. The whole idea resonates very well with my Internet Professionals Master Agenda approach.

And by the way – there is no simple "actionable step" that comes out of this post that you can do to immediately to improve your business. That would be looking at things as technical problems whereas this different way of looking at your business is itself an adaptive challenge.

The insight is this:

If something isn't working out right, we always look for "a way to fix it".

"I'm not getting enough traffic" => Get more backlinks

"My conversions are awful" => Improve your headline / video / bullets

"I can't focus properly" => Shut down your email / Facebook / Twitter

The issue is in the expression of what isn't working. They are expressed as "technical problems". And when you express them like that, you come up with "technical solutions".

Sometimes that's all well and good, and exactly what is needed. But more often than not, the whole "system" under consideration is very complex, and simply changing one specific "technical" thing is not enough: in fact, it may even be counter productive.

For that reason, it is much more appropriate to consider Adaptive Challenges, instead of Technical Solutions.

In the UK, a classic example of this is our National Health System. It is a huge, complex and constantly changing organization. Technical fixes to improve elements of it rarely work (see examples below).

But you and I, and our IM businesses, are ALSO complex systems. Not as complex as the NHS, of course, but complex enough, because:

  • You are not a simple resource that gets jobs done – you are a hugely complex being and you have to always take into account your psychology
  • Even if you have no employees, you very often have to deal other complex psychological beings, such as JV partners, outsourcers and customers
  • You interact with highly complex technical systems whose behaviour often seems as complex and unpredictable has human behaviour: the prime example here being Google's search algorithm, but there are others as well. And these technical systems have to interact with each other as well.

The examples below are copied from the paper I read that referenced the HBR article. At the end, I have included examples from the IM world

Technical Problems

Adaptive Challenges

1. Easy to identify

1. Difficult to identify (easy to deny)

2. Often lend themselves to quick and easy(cut-and-dried) solutions

2. Require changes in values, beliefs, roles,relationships, and approaches to work

3. Often can be solved by an authority or Expert

3. People with the problem do the work of solving it

4. Require change in just one or a few places; often contained within organizational boundaries

4. Require change in numerous places; usually cross organizational boundaries

5. People are generally receptive to technical Solutions

5. People often resist even acknowledging adaptive challenges

6. Solutions can often be implemented quickly—even by edict

6. “Solutions” require experiments and new discoveries; they can take a long time to implement and cannot be implemented by edict




– Take medication to lower blood pressure

– Change lifestyle to eat healthily, get more exercise and lower stress

– Implement electronic ordering and dispensing of medications in hospitals to reduce errors and drug interactions

– Encourage nurses and pharmacists to question and even challenge illegible or dangerous prescriptions by physicians

– Increase penalty for drunk driving

– Raise public awareness of the dangers and effects of drunk driving, targeting teenagers in particular


IM Examples

– Buy a “proven” step-by-step guide to setting up an IM business

– Change mindset and working practices to focus on, and efficiently follow, a strategic IM development plan

– Implement an autoblogging system because you have been told it’s the fastest way to develop a portfolio of multiple sites and you have limited time

– Develop your learning about IM so you can make your own judgement about the best business model for you and your circumstances

– Get 100 more backlinks to each of your sites because none of them ranks well

– As part of your regular review of all your business processes, consider improving your niche and keyword selection process to make ranking easier

– Change your headline to improve your conversions

– Constantly test and adjust each element within your funnel to improve overall EPC

It isn't easy to put into words exactly what constitutes an adaptive challenge: often the best one can do is provide examples – so I hope those above help.

Whereas subscribing to my Internet Professionals Master Agenda is a worthwhile thing to do (in my opinion!), getting into the way of thinking that gave rise to much of the content is even more worthwhile. This idea of technical problem vs. adaptive challenge is a key part of that.

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