Adaptive Thinking

Adaptive Thinking

We continue to adapt our thinking around COVID.  Just when we have it all figured out, something changes.  In times of certainty we look for technical solutions.  Now, in times of UNcertainty, we seek adaptive solutions.

Here is a big picture look at Adaptive Thinking:

Bay of Pigs:

It was clear to his advisors that President Kennedy wanted to invade Cuba in the early 60s.  His advisors went along.  No one spoke up, and it was a disaster.  Group Think, is the term that describes how groups tend to bow to peer pressure.

Cuban Missile Crisis:

Just a few months later, President Kennedy considered all possible options to prevent the Soviet Union from landing missiles in Cuba.  With a broad diversity of opinion he hit on possibly the only workable solution to avert war.


President Nixon, may or may not have known about the burglary of the opposition party headquarters. But he had made his intentions clear – do whatever it takes. His supporters went ahead with the break-in and were caught. Nixon resigned his presidency in disgrace.


More recently, the Challenger Space Shuttle was lost due to O-ring failure in cold weather.  Looking back, group think was at work.  A few people murmured concerns but no one spoke up to postpone the launch.  Seven astronauts died in the explosion.

Osama bin Laden:

When bin Laden was tracked to a compound in Pakistan, President Obama ordered intense analysis.  How sure were we that bin Laden was really there? Could we get in and out safely? What would be the consequences of invading an allied nation?  Two sample compounds were constructed.  Red teams tried to think of everything that could go wrong.  They eventually decided there was a 70% chance of success and went for it.  One helicopter crashed into the compound walls.  They had trained for that and pulled off the mission successfully.


In our times, we have heard how then Vice-President Biden, opposed the continuation of the Afghanistan war many years ago.  Now, as President, he has made it clear that it is time to leave Afghanistan.  Time will tell whether group think prevailed or whether vigorous debate lead to the best options.


We too, in education, make group think decisions.  We had the era of instruction with a focus on ITIP (Instructional Theory Into Practice) and mastery learning. Then the era of outcomes and standards.  Followed by the era of assessments and No Child Left Behind. Now we look to SEL and student voice.   These “whats” ultimately fail unless the “hows” are attended to.  The “hows” are processes like continuous improvement and leadership that listens, learns and adapts.


In times of. COVID, we see new challenges daily.  Before rushing to the next technical fix, take time to review, reflect, and adapt as needed.

Lessons Learned:

Adaptive Thinking lessons emerging from these stories:

  1. Ask lots of questions: turn unknowns into knowns
  2. Seek out contrary points of view: ask specifically what could go wrong
  3. Analyze best options: make rigorous debate the norm
  4. Under-promise … Over-deliver

Good advice as we move into another year filled with UNcertainty.

Some recent resources: 

Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions that Matter the Most
by Steven Johnson  (Author) | August 8, 2019

You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most
by Leonard J. MarcusEric J. McNulty , et al. | Sold by: Hachette Book Group  | Jun 11, 2019

Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath  | Mar 3, 2020

Some classics: 

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World by Ronald A. Heifetz , Marty Linsky , et al. | May 18, 2009

Leadership and Decision-Making (Pitt Paperback; 110) by Victor H. Vroom and Philip W. Yetton  | May 31, 2010




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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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