Adaptive Leadership for Tackling Complex Problems Toolkit

Systems Thinking Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program Title X Family Planning Program
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Welcome to the Toolkit

The landscape in which family planning services are delivered is continually changing. With changes in client needs, health care priorities, funding, and evidence-based practices, come new opportunities and challenges. This calls for leadership at all levels of an organization to manage change.

Adaptive leadership is the ability to manage change effectively and to thrive in complex and uncertain environments. Building adaptive leadership capacity helps family planning professionals to respond to changing needs and priorities, and to strengthen their service delivery systems.

This toolkit provides an introduction to adaptive leadership for all family planning professionals and walks users through team-based strategies and tools to tackle complex challenges.

To start, view this short video to familiarize yourself with adaptive leadership.


This toolkit includes action steps and associated resources to help family planning agencies build adaptive leadership capacity. ‘Notes from the Field’ for some action steps are also included to demonstrate how family planning organizations have used these skills to tackle complex, adaptive problems.


Think about a challenge the team is facing. Begin by identifying the root causes of the challenge in mind. It is important to gain agreement on and address actual root causes, not what may be superficial causes of the problem.

Action Steps Supportive Resources

Facilitate a team discussion to define the challenge and gain agreement about its root causes.


Cause and Effect (Fishbone) Diagram

Adaptive Leadership for Improving Strategic Planning

Program staff successfully solve many challenges in their work based on their technical knowledge and expertise. Technical challenges have clear, identifiable, agreed-upon solutions, even if those solutions are difficult to design and implement.

An adaptive challenge is one that lacks agreement and/or certainty about the problem or course of action. Solutions are unlikely to be found in the present-day knowledge base and current ways of work. Challenges which persist after staff have made their best attempts to apply known solutions may be characterized as adaptive. An adaptive challenge cannot be addressed with a technical approach. Note that most challenges have aspects that are technical and adaptive.

Action Steps Supportive Resources

Determine which of the root causes of the problem are technical and which are adaptive. Use the results to identify the approaches for identifying solutions.


Agreement and Certainty Matrix

Adaptive Leadership for Effectively Managing a Telehealth Change Initiative

If the challenge has complex, adaptive components, consider approaching the adaptive challenges by creating a shared vision, utilizing systems thinking, and/or engaging stakeholders in problem-solving. These are team-based approaches that facilitate innovative thinking to find solutions to complex problems.

Action Steps Supportive Resources

Reframe the problem into a positive shared vision to facilitate productive discussion about what strategies to pursue.

Appreciative Inquiry

Identify team members’ roles and responsibilities to better understand and improve the system.

System Support Mapping

Work with staff to identify and get agreement on needed changes so they are supported to take ownership for implementing solutions.

Improvement Boards