Design and Implementation

Leadership drivers[1] are the actions and behaviors of leaders. Implementation science identifies two types of leadership challenges: technical and adaptive.[2] Each challenge has a distinctive set of characteristics and requires different leadership skills.

Typically, technical challenges involve the following circumstances: [3]

  • Fairly clear agreement on the problem
  • Agreement that the problem would be defined similarly by those impacted by it and those addressing it
  • Clear pathways to solutions—that is, the path to a solution is largely known
  • Clear management pathways—that is, the leader can form a team, make a plan, make decisions, hold people accountable, and execute the solution

These qualities do not mean that technical challenges are easy, nor do they mean that there won’t be adjustments to the plan to address technical challenges. Technical challenges respond well to a traditional management approach in which problems are defined; solutions are generated; resources are garnered; and tasks are assigned, managed, and monitored. An “in charge” leader guides the overall process.

"One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is incorrectly identifying the type of challenge they are facing. This leads to using the wrong set of strategies to solve the problem."

Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie, “The Work of Leadership”[4]

In contrast to technical challenges, adaptive challenges exhibit the following qualities:

  • Are not “solved” through traditional management approaches
  • Show legitimate competing perspectives—different views of the problem and different perspectives on what a viable solution might be
  • Have a less clear definition of the problem
  • Show multiple perspectives on the issue at hand
  • Have less clear practical solutions and implementation pathways
  • Involve collective responsibility (across multiple organizations, people, or both) for defining a solution
  • Need a shift in values, practices, and relationships

State leaders can expect to face both technical and adaptive leadership challenges during the course of planning and implementation.

Solving adaptive challenges requires adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership aligns well with the social service sector, where leaders typically operate within a complex environment without full autonomy or authority. The following questions can help identify adaptive leadership qualities.[5]

  • How well do you know your organization in terms of similarities and differences between individuals and groups, staff attitudes (toward innovation, clients, partner organizations, management, and each other), organizational climate, and organizational strengths and gaps?
  • Do you track societal trends (for example, budgets, demographics, politics, economics, and technology) and organizational trends (for example, staff performance and stability and client outcomes) and reflect on their potential future impact on the organization? If you do not track trends, why not?
  • How well do you collaborate with peers in other parts of your agency and other public or private agencies that affect your organization’s operations and clients? To what extent do leaders champion collective strategies to build common purpose?
  • Do you and your organization’s leaders shake up the organization when needed (for example, changing long-standing processes or policies or making key staff changes to pave the path for new ways of working)? What drives these changes? Are your decisions proactive or reactive? Does the organization help staff develop new competencies?
  • How able are you and your organization’s leaders to adjust mid-course when new information is available to suggest a different approach? What are some specific examples? What inhibits organizational adjustments?
  • How effectively do you and your organization’s leaders ensure that short-and long-term changes get planned and implemented effectively? How does leadership
    • secure staff, client, and external stakeholder buy-in for change;
    • empower staff at all levels, clients, and external stakeholders to co-create changes; and
    • set clear expectations for staff, clarify boundaries, empower staff within those boundaries, support staff in their implementation work, and hold staff accountable for follow-through?
  • To what extent does leadership ensure that plans get adjusted based on lessons learned during implementation? How effective is communication of short and long-term changes to staff, customers, and stakeholders?
  • How sensitive are you and your organization’s leaders to the effects of changes in the organization and environment on staff, clients, and external stakeholders? To what extent do leaders reflect on those effects and accordingly adjust, for example, the pace and scope of change and the way they communicate about organizational changes? To what extent do leaders reflect on their own strengths and barriers and work to leverage their strengths and overcome their barriers?

For more information on adaptive leadership, see the Resources section of this guide.


[1] National Implementation Research Network. (n.d.). Topic 3: leadership drivers [Web page]. In Module 2: Implementation Drivers, in Active Implementation Module Series. Retrieved from

[2] Heifetz, R. A., and Laurie, D. L. (1997). The work of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 75(1) 124–34.

[3] National Implementation Research Network. (n.d.). Module 2: Implementation drivers. In Active Implementation Module Series. Retrieved from

[4] Heifetz, R. A., and Laurie, D. L. (1997). The work of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 75(1) 124–34.

[5] American Public Human Services Association. (n.d.). Adaptive Leadership Toolkit. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from