'Containing Change' - 10 considerations for establishing a viable Holding Environment for undertaking adaptive change


8 minute read


A couple of years ago I attended an Introduction to Adaptive Leadership intensive with Social Leadership Australia (a great program for those wanting to learn more about Adaptive Leadership!). I had been working with the praxis of Adaptive Leadership for a couple of years already and attending the program helped me to further ground my practice.

I documented the following philosophy for 'facilitating'  Adaptive Leadership and Adaptive Change after that program and it remains  immensely important for me in how I step into my work:

During times of change, it is critical that the leaders of the change establish a ‘holding environment’ within the organisation that is able to contain and support the change journey - in other words, the container established to hold or support people undertaking adaptive change is equally (or even more important) that the context informing that change (the why of change) or the content of change (the what of change). 

The adaptive Holding Environment - the conditions that allow a leader to work in the ways they see fit in implementing a [transformational] change strategy - consists of a number of elements. These elements enable the leaders of the change process to undertake the following:

  • create the necessary disequilibrium in the organisation for the change to occur;
  • work neutrally across the different ‘interests’ of the organisation;
  • work with the politics of the change process without having your competence or character ‘assassinated’;
  • ask the questions no one else is able to ask;
  • speak the unspeakable; 
  • engage with those ‘interests’ in the organisation with a minority voice; 
  • stay on track with the foundational purpose for undertaking the change; and
  • operate with a clarity of role so as to provide stability within the organisation whilst the change is unfolding.

In the past 12-18 months I have have found myself working more and more creating containers for large groups to understand, engage with, navigate and capitalise on complexity - the essence of working adaptively. The work is highly challenging and incredibly rewarding.

A couple of weeks ago when I facilitated 2-day off-site with Pete Holliday for a group of senior leaders (approximately 50 people) who are leading their organisation through a difficult period where the outcomes of how they work together will result in the organisation either floundering or flourishing. To flounder would mean the continuing decline and, ultimately, the demise of the organisation. The stakes are high and the personal perspectives and agendas for what needs to occur next for the organisation are many and diverse.

The conditions I entered into for this off-site reinforced the  importance of establishing a strong Holding Environment for undertaking adaptive work. It was pretty clear early from the outset of engaging in this project that there was low agreement of the way forward for the organisation, and even lower agreement of the process the team would use to identify a viable and sustainable way forward.

As a result, I adopted a process facilitation approach grounded in adaptive leadership and mobilised using agile project implementation. The approach aimed to 'step above' individual agendas and cohere the group around key strategic stories the team wanted to realise about its future (rather than any one approach). Once the strategic stories were established the related activities that would enable the team to realise those strategic stories would be identified and sequenced in ways that allowed the group to undertake the process of adaptive change without being overwhelmed by the experience of the change itself.. It theory it sounded good, but in practice it was challenged at the outset. As with all highly ambiguous contexts where there is no once answer or pathway forward individual egos can get in the way of collective coherence and action.

As a result, Pete and I were really 'thinking on our feet' for the two days sensing into what the group needed next and interactively designing the workshop's process in response to what were were sensing from the group.

I think we were successful in supporting the group to realise useful pathways forward. Why? Because the group continued to put its trust in us to guide them through a process when, in reality, they could have de-authorised us at an point in the process.

In Pete and my retrospective of the two days with the group we conducted our process review using the ten key considerations for establishing and maintaining a viable Holding Environment for adaptive change first shared with me in the  Introduction to Adaptive Leadership intensive with Social Leadership Australia.

These are:

  1. Mandate - do you have a mandate to deliver on this project/business? if so, who gave it to you and do they have enough clout in the organisation for others to pay attention to that mandate? When was the last time you confirmed you still had a mandate? Did you give yourself a mandate (also fine) - if so, how are you continuing to give yourself permission to deliver upon your mandate?
  2. Structure - what structures (physical, process, legal, etc) do you have in place to provide the ‘order’, ‘safety’ (emotional, physical, etc) and direction/focus required for the project/business to operate? How are these structures being involved over time to remain relevant and useful to the changing environment of the project/business?
  3. Reputation - what is your reputation as the leader of the project/business? What are your strengths (and how to do you promote these) and what are your weaknesses (and how do you get the support required for these to be less of an issue)?
  4. Physical Environment - is the location of the project/business that people enjoy being within? Are people’s basic needs being met?
  5. Purpose/Consequence - is there clarity and agreement of the true purpose of the project/business? Does everyone know why they are there and a part of the project? Are people aware of the consequences of implementing the project/business (e.g., gaining something, loosing something, etc) and is there agreement to and acceptance of these consequences? 
  6. Rank/Status - what is your status/rank within the organisation (note: not your role/title/position, but your level of influence and/or credibility in the organisation)? To what extend are others giving you ‘psychological power’ or deference to implement the project/business as you see fit? How much do you believe in yourself in implementing the project/business, and how much do others believe in you?
  7. Competence - do you have the required type and level of competence, skills and capabilities to make the project/business happen? Do you have enough range of competence to deal with most stumbling blocks along the way of implementing the project/business, and do those around you think you have the required skills to make it happen? 
  8. Trust (Legitimacy) - do you have the requisite levels of trust of others to implement the project/business - note, the foundation of building trust involves two components: 1) integrity of values (people know what you stand for) and 2) integrity of action (people know you will do what you say you will do, to a high standard). When people trust you they will be more willing to go along with you even if they are not sure of how it will turn out.
  9. Contract - Do you have a formal (legal, etc) and/or informal (psychological) agreement do do the work involved to deliver upon the project/business? Does that contract also outline how the project /business is to be delivered (i.e., in the way that fits your style, etc)?
  10. Authority - the buck stops with someone - is that you? If so, how do you maintain that ‘authority’ so as to do the work without someone else with more ‘authority’ status, etc de-authorising you to do the work of the project/business?

Each time the group became unstable in how it worked together over the two days we worked with them we needed to establish one or more of the ten conditions outlined so as to support the group to continue its adaptive work together. I look forward to seeing how they implement their strategic stories in the coming months.