Technical and Adaptive Leadership in Database Conversion

Photo credit: INPIVIC Family via flickr

Last week, we celebrated a milestone in our office at the Shalem Institute: the conversion to a new database.  If you’ve ever been through the switch to a new database, you know the pitfalls and headaches associated with it.   My colleague Ruth masterfully managed the project, and the headaches (at least for the rest of us) were minimal.

Ruth’s outstanding work made me reflect on Ronald Heifetz’s distinction, in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, on the difference between technical and adaptive leadership.  In a database conversion, many technical challenges arise.  For example, Ruth had to learn the old system, learn the new system, think about how to move information over to a very different configuration of data, plan when to do the move (at a time of less activity in the database), and learn and teach how to run dual systems for a few months while we got all the kinks out.

At the same time, the technical challenges comprised only about half of the task.  Heifetz defines adaptive leadership as “the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.” Adaptive challenges, unlike technical challenges, have no clear answers.  They involve people, with their varying levels of technical expertise and their differing needs and values.  While training is available for technical work, adaptive work often comes with only questions.

It would be possible to do a flawless database conversion technically, but still have the project fail because the adaptive work was not addressed.  The adaptive challenges, based on needs and values, are often even greater than the technical challenges.  In our office, for example, we have varying levels of technical expertise, so we need different levels of training.  In addition, our different spheres of responsibility lead to different values. The finance team values accuracy, transparency, and audit-worthy procedures.  The registrars value clarity and easy access to information. Different kinds of reports need to be generated by different teams.

Ruth’s task as project manager involved not only mastering the technical side of the database conversion but also the adaptive side.  In the adaptive work, she helped mobilize us all to tackle the tough challenge of the database conversion and she helped us to thrive as we did it. As in all adaptive work, she had no clear roadmap.  She knew she wanted to make it through the database conversion with us thriving on an individual and organizational level.  She kept that goal in mind as she paid attention and supported us, both in the design phase and in the execution phase.  She held regular meetings with various teams, helping them articulate their needs, and helping them understand the challenges they would face as they adapted to a new system.  She held several meetings with the staff as a whole, showing us goals that had been achieved and helping us get on board with the direction we were heading.  She met with us individually, patiently listening to our needs and teaching us how to use the new database in our own spheres of responsibility.

By understanding and addressing the needs of individuals, Ruth was able to accomplish a main component of adaptive leadership, that which Heifetz describes as “giving the work back to the people at a rate they can stand.”  Because she practiced adaptive leadership as well as technical leadership, our organization successfully navigated its challenges despite some bumps along the way.

Both technical and adaptive challenges arise in any leadership situation.  Even in projects that seem overwhelmingly technical, the iceberg of adaptive work threatens to destroy the careful technical work.  It is by understanding both the technical and adaptive sides and using the very different skills required to address each that leaders can best guide their organizations to thrive during challenging times.

8 Responses to “Technical and Adaptive Leadership in Database Conversion”


  1. 1 Doug Mounce May 31, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    Like that description, “giving the work back to the people at a rate they can stand.” thanks!

  2. 3 friendmarcelle May 31, 2017 at 5:04 pm

    Thanks for helping me better understand the work of adaptive leadership–the work that has no clear road map but requires attention to varying needs, step by step.

  3. 5 Ruth Taylor May 31, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    What an honor to be highlighted here! Deep shared gratitude and respect, Margaret.

  4. 7 Gerrit Jan Romeijn June 1, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    Thank you for sharing this story.
    I have a story to share as well.
    I work in a Genetics Laboratory and 15 years ago we had to switch to a new nationwide database system. The database is very complex as it has to map all kinds of relationships between family-members for many generations.
    A year before the transition a young woman came along and interviewed many employees. She made a kind of inventory of needs and wishes. After a number of weeks she sent her report. It was amazing how clear this report was. These results were ‘translated’ in the Graphical User Interfaces of the new database. And in the end the whole transition to a new nationwide system went very smooth. This young woman created beforehand a safe space for us to adapt to the new situation.


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