Adaptive Change: Learning ForTE’s Process

The Rev. Stacy Williams Duncan, Founder, Learning & Change Strategist

I’ve thought a lot over this last year, as we’ve had more and more clients, about what causes someone to send an email or call us at Learning ForTE: why take that initial step now? 

For many, they feel overwhelmed making the decision about a learning or content management system. Or they’ve been forced into hybrid or online environment teaching and realized it is exhausting, and their faculty and staff don’t really enjoy it…but yet, especially now, they know we can’t just go back to strictly in person learning.

In this case, there is a sense of we-know-we-need-to-do-something-but-we-don’t-know-what-or-how.

A scattering of different colored puzzle pieces on top of a desk.

People also call Learning ForTE because there’s comfort in working with people experienced in churches and seminaries – they hope we won’t be quite so technical and will speak their language. When we get these calls, there is also a sense that they want us to give them an easy answer: the best system to use and how to get it up quickly. Just tell me what I need to do. 

In our first conversation, many clients are probably disappointed, because I end up telling them to slow down: 

  • Tell me about your organization.
  • Let me tell you about our foundational values. 
  • Let’s talk about how we work and how you work.

…and when they ask about what system to use the answer is always- Well, that depends… What are your objectives and goals? 

Two people holding EXPO markers writing and planning in front of a white board.

I’m confident they are frustrated at that point, because it is so tempting to think because something involves digital learning or platform that it is a technical challenge to be solved …but it is not.

Most of our work at Learning ForTE is adaptive. Today, in the deepest ways, our seminaries, churches, and organizations must face their adaptive challenges.  

So, I’ve just used lingo you may or may not be familiar with: technical and adaptive challenges. Over the last many years, I’ve been greatly influenced by Ronald Heifetz’s Leadership on the Line where he talks about whether something is a technical or adaptive challenge. 

A dark teal and white flowchart explaining the process of adaptive change.

Over the last many years, I’ve been greatly influenced by Ronald Heifetz’s Leadership on the Line where he talks about whether something is a technical or adaptive challenge. Now, I think distinguishing between those two terms is helpful, but it can also get us stuck in one place. 

You see, in my experience, people always want to make digital learning and platforms technical challenges, but often they are actually deeply adaptive, because we are asked to change how we work, view the world, and what it means to be in relationship with our colleagues and learners. 

There’s a graphic above that sort of outlines a Learning ForTE client’s journey through adaptive and technical challenges. (Thanks, Ataira!)

It starts with that first call. They want us to give them an answer to what they perceive to be a technical question. Then we push back. We ask deep questions about the culture of their community. 

Two professionally dressed, women are talking near a table with an open laptop, a cup of coffee and a notepad. One woman points at the pad of paper with a pen.

I have to admit, this is the first major decision point: will they engage or deny? This is the point at which we either move forward with discussing a contract or they don’t call us back.

Some clients aren’t ready to engage deeper questions about community building and what it means to be in relationship with each other in digital and hybrid platforms. Yet, we’ve learned that this is one of the most important parts of the conversation. This, a transformation of understanding of learning communities in this hybrid age, is the work we feel called to facilitate. So, we will continue to ask those questions. 

If the client does engage, and we begin working with them, we might still end up with a contract that includes some technical “button pushing,” but I’ve yet to experience a situation with clients where those conversations don’t lead to the bigger questions of: 

  • Who’s pushing the buttons?
  • In the future, what will they do if they don’t have as many buttons to push? What are they going to do with that time and energy?
  • How are they going to know the person who used to drop into their office? 

This is the second major decision point, usually about halfway through the work or as we begin final stages of implementation. This is when they realize change is going to happen- that there is going to be something new, that their jobs, and tools they use to interact will be different. This is when it becomes clear this project is not just an abstract thought experiment, but instead will come to fruition. Often, there is panic and resistance. People push back because they finally realize what we’ve known all along. Up until now, they’ve told themselves this is just a technical change, but suddenly that narrative no longer holds. It is almost impossible to implement digital learning systems as simply technical challenges. 

As we move into hybrid and online formation spaces, these changes are inherently adaptive. They require us to learn new ways of being in relationship with our team and with those we serve.

An antique compass is propped open in a window sill with a blue background.

The question becomes: do they limit their engagement with the potential offered by an adaptive challenge, by only focusing on what it will take to train people to use the new systems? Or, do they fully step into the unknown and dare to dream and engage the reconfiguration of their team and organization in a way that is digital, hybrid, and highly relational?

Institutions that leverage technological changes in adaptive ways can move into a reality that embraces the knowledge, experience, and capacity of individuals within their organizations. They do so by recognizing it takes everyone working together to create this new, adaptive, flexible, and innovative ecosystem. 

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