You Can’t Use a Paperclip to Solve Wellbeing Issues

In the show MacGyver, the lead character was known for creatively using objects and resources to help escape life-threatening situations. In one episode, he defused a bomb at the last second using a paperclip. Real life is not so simple — especially when it comes to changing human behavior. Yet the way we typically approach change is just about as ridiculous as MacGyver trying to use a paperclip to improve wellbeing; we are looking for the wrong type of solutions to solve very complex issues.

Technical vs. Adaptive Challenges

There are two main types of challenges that organizations and individuals face: technical and adaptive. Each requires a different approach.

  • Technical challenges are those challenges where existing knowledge can be applied to bridge the gap between the current reality and where you aspire to be. With technical challenges, people can draw on existing knowledge and experience to solve problems.¹ For example, perhaps your organization is preparing to move locations or install a new computer system. If you’ve gone through similar changes before, you can look back at the processes and steps taken, what did and didn’t work, what vendors you used, etc., and then start the fairly predictable change process. Or let’s say you need to replace an appliance in your home. If you’ve done this before, you can take the same steps to research brands and stores and figure out what will work best to meet your needs and budget.
  • Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are more complex. With these types of challenges, the gap between the current state and the state you aspire to be cannot be closed using existing approaches; it can only be closed by people reframing how they think and operate. Adaptive work is hard because it challenges our deeply held beliefs, and the values that made us successful in the past may become less relevant.¹ Adaptive work involves experiencing loss in letting go of certain elements of the past — loss of a way of doing things, loss of loyalty to the way things have always been done, loss of feelings of competence, loss of authority and reporting relationships, and more.²

The reality is that, when it comes to individual and organizational change, the majority of challenges we face requires adaptive work. However, in our quick-fix society, we keep trying to apply technical solutions to what are actually adaptive challenges; it’s the wrong approach — like using an auto mechanic when you need an electrician. Here are just a few examples of our stuckness in looking to technical solutions to solve adaptive challenges:

  • We reduce weight loss down to the technical aspects of calories in vs. calories out (with epic failure rates and long-term unintended consequences) rather than addressing the complexities of thinking, how people view and value themselves, their relationship with food and movement, stress and more (which are all adaptive challenges). Most people know what they need to do to lose weight. The weight itself isn’t the issue; it’s much more complex than that — which is why 95% of people fail to sustain weight loss after programs end.
  • Organizations try to control healthcare costs by implementing 4P (pry, poke, prod and punish) “Wellness or Else” programs. This approach, of course, also ignores the complexities of being human and assumes people are predictable like robots or lab rats —where a technical solution might work. However, not only is this approach ineffective in addressing the complexities of healthcare, it backfires in terms of eroding employee autonomy and engagement.
  • Organizations try to approach culture change as a program or event (which leads to following fairly cookie-cutter steps that should work if the organization were made up of mindless machines rather than thinking human beings). Yet, as noted in the book, Firms of Endearment, “in the twenty-first century, we can no longer view business organizations as merely ‘rational machines.’ Rather, they must be viewed as ‘dynamic and increasingly unpredictable organisms.’” In other words, transformation demands innovative and flexible thinking to guide the ever-changing journey; it demands an adaptive solution.
  • Many organizations try to approach leadership development in a mechanistic way. They look at the pieces and parts of what competencies and skills make up a good leader and aim to “fix” weak areas rather than viewing leaders as whole and part of the living system. However, developing quality leaders requires more than building skills; it demands supporting leaders to increase their self-awareness, elicit better thinking and develop quality relationships — all of which are adaptive challenges.

It is no wonder that most attempts for individual change fail and most employee wellness programs don’t work in improving individual wellbeing. People are not machines but are complex, thinking beings. Effectively leading and supporting individual and organizational change is not about forcing it on people; instead it requires deliberately creating the conditions for pausing and new thinking, thus creating a foundation for adaptive change work. This means shifting from providing solutions for people to having the locus of responsibility lie within those individuals and with the collective intelligence of employees at all levels.²

If organizations want to have engaged and intrinsically motivated employees who can succeed with adaptive challenges, they need to create the conditions for:

  • Autonomy (people being able to think for themselves)
  • Mastery (people having opportunities to learn and grow and become highly skilled)
  • Purpose (people feeling their work is meaningful and connected to a greater purpose and vision)³

The more employees are given the space to be the authors of their own individual wellbeing journey and can be a part of leading organizational change within the context of their relationships with their colleagues, the greater the likelihood that change will be successful. Firms of Endearment and Deliberately Developmental Organizations are great examples of creating such conditions.

Zappos is another great example. Employees are encouraged never to accept or be comfortable with the status quo because being unable to respond quickly and adapt to change can be devastating. So Zappos employees are encouraged, supported, and recognized for bringing forward new ideas (autonomy). These individuals are provided constant opportunities for growth and development (mastery); and the leaders ensure all employees have great clarity on the culture and vision, and how they fit into the picture (purpose).4

It’s time to put down the paperclip (unless you have a stack of papers you need to fasten) and stop using mismatched solutions to solve the complex challenges of the human experience.


  1. Heifetz, R.A. & Laurie, D.L. (December 2001). The Work of Leadership. Harvard Business Review,131-141
  2. Van Velsor, E. (March/April 2003). Learning New Ways: A Conversation with Ronald A. Heifetz.LIA, Volume 23(1), 19-22.
  3. Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books
  4. Hsieh, T. (2010). Delivering Happiness: A Path To Profits, Passion and Purpose. New York: Business Plus

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