I’m not sure I’d heard the term “adaptive challenges” until this week.  But there they were, mentioned in nearly every session that I attended at the APHA conference.  The way it was described is that technical challenges are those that have a solution.  Even if the solution might be costly, difficult or require someone highly skilled, the solution is out there, It’s just a matter of finding the right person to do the job.  Brain surgery was one example of a technical challenge.  I can’t do it, but someone can.

Adaptive challenges on the other hand, are those that are highly complex and cannot be solved by one entity alone.  These challenges, like poverty, hunger or violence, don’t have a solution just waiting to be implemented.  They almost surely require collaboration across sectors and across disciplines, require an alignment of missions between organizations (and perhaps between countries) and they require a creative approach to problem solving.  Here’s the place for Collective Impact, the model of partnership-building and collaborative effort that makes so much sense.

These adaptive challenges are the ones that make people think the work is impossible, but I’d like to think that if we keep forging new partnerships we’ll be able to think bigger, work bigger and make strides in addressing the adaptive challenges, the root causes, the social determinants of health.

Someone at the conference mentioned that their “task is to help [partners] figure out how they’re aligned”.  In my role as an outside facilitator for coalitions I also take on this task.  I may not be the one who tackles poverty head-on, but I help organizations find their common goals, help them align their missions and their resources toward a collective outcome.  It’s one piece of the puzzle.

Hearing professionals talk about the kind of creative solutions that will be necessary to solve adaptive challenges reminds me of the years I spent working with teens.  Youth need to be part of these conversations.  Teens have the energy, the creativity and the time to tackle complexity and they often have less of the cynicism and experience that can stop us as adults from trying new things.