At the end of last month, my local garden supply store delivered an enormous quantity of a rich mix of compost and garden soil to the top of my driveway. This past weekend, I began the process of digging out and then replacing the soil in my raised beds–on the advice of a master gardener after I shared my disappointments with last year’s tomatoes, even though I did everything “right.” (As a granddaughter of farmers, I’ve got a lot of years of backyard vegetable gardening under my belt.) After two days of physical labor, I’m experiencing the “Muscles are sore that I didn’t even know I had” syndrome. Ibuprofen is my friend as I write this on my couch.
Over the past three years, Academic Leaders have been flexing in new and different ways too. They’ve been using their problem solving “muscles” or competencies. And while they’ve got some aches and pains that ibuprofen can’t help, they’ve also got new-found strengths. There’s a name for the process of drawing on competencies composed from your prior knowledge and previous experiences while you’re stretching yourself in new ways: Adaptive Expertise. A number of years ago, Matt Gossage, then the head of Cannon School, shared the term with me. Over the years, I’ve found it to be an incredibly useful term, because it describes a trait that effective academic leaders have in spades, even if they don’t know it.
For a quick definition: adaptive experts are those who effectively develop solutions for problems that have never been seen before, calling upon their prior knowledge and using a growth mindset to transfer their expertise into a new domain or scenario. There are examples of adaptive experts in many domains. Just a few highlights include the NASA scientists who designed a plan to rescue trapped Chilean miners, or an airline pilot making an emergency landing in unknown terrain. More typical examples happen in work and life regularly, such as when a distillery begins manufacturing hand-sanitizer, or even the mundane work of turning the refrigerator’s contents into dinner.
The key to being an adaptive expert is to have an understanding of the competencies one has, and consider how to flex those competencies to solve emerging challenges. That’s something that takes more than just seeking new knowledge. Adaptive experts need to be open to practice, willing to take risks, and open to feedback.
Let’s consider one competency in action. Communicate Effectively Across Multiple Domains is a competency many of us have grown into as we’ve mastered leading video meetings with students, parents, and colleagues. What’s the next step for this competency? Several members of our Advisory Council are leaning into the idea of being adaptive experts by transferring their communications skills into leading online peer conversations, co-facilitating classes for fellow academic leaders, or offering their insights in webinars that will become part of our resource library.
We often develop adaptive expertise in a crisis, but there’s a special strength that comes when we add meaningful intention. Do you have an area of expertise that you’re ready to transfer to a new domain? This doesn’t always mean a new role, but perhaps you’ll take on a new challenge or collaborate with a peer in a different area of the school on a new project.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)