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At a human services tipping point: How leaders move from ideas to outcomes

A good idea in human services only goes so far, but implementing it well can change everything.


Human services agencies are at tipping point. Exciting possibilities await them, but realizing new production frontiers involves risk and uncertainty. Making progress means abandoning the comfort of the status quo. As energizing as this can be, it can be overwhelming too.

Conversation at The 2015 Human Services Summit: Emergent Leadership – Turning Ideas into Outcomes shows that adaptive leadership is a critical difference-maker for human services agencies to execute new ideas well.

This executive summary tells the stories of human service leaders who attended the Summit who are exercising adaptive leadership today. It explores the bold actions that make adaptive leadership so essential in human services.


Adaptive leadership was at the heart of the discussion at The 2015 Human Services Summit: Emergent Leadership – Turning Ideas into Outcomes at Harvard University.

Convened by Leadership for a Networked World and the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, in collaboration with Accenture, this Summit brought together human services practitioners to share what works and learn from each other.

Key Findings

Ronald Heifetz—founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School—coined and developed the theory and framework of adaptive leadership.

He argues that adaptive challenges are complex and deeply rooted because they involve capacity building. Not only do they require entire organizations to venture into the unknown, the journey itself can be highly disruptive.

These challenges require adaptive leadership that fosters learning and experimentation over time amid organizational and cultural resistance, and often, the threat of failure.


Consider these five fundamentals of adaptive leadership in human services:

  1. Honor the positive and build from strength
    Adaptive leaders acknowledge what works in their organization, and move forward from there.

  2. Harness staff power for leadership from within
    Adaptive leaders excel at the art of bringing differences together within and outside of their organizations.

  3. See the silver lining in unexpected places
    Adaptive leaders need to be optimists in mindset and action to seize on the potential of a good idea.

  4. Strengthen partnerships with data
    A shared, data-backed view can help build relationships around facts, not assumptions.

  5. Experiment, experiment, experiment
    Leaders in situations without a roadmap must be bolder, embracing experimentation.


In human services, adaptive leaders are essential to navigate the highs and lows of moving from ideas to outcomes.

In addition to the five fundamentals explored in this executive summary, these leaders share a non-negotiable trait. They have a passion for the people they serve—and never lose sight of it.

The only way to change the lives of families and systems is to be inside them. You have to be in there day in and day out.

Virginia Pryor
Deputy Director of Child Welfare, Georgia Division of Family and Children Services


Debora Morris

Debora Morris
Managing Director, Human Services
State, Provincial and Local Government at Accenture

Debora Morris is part of the US leadership team in Accenture's Human Services practice, responsible for integrated social services for North America. She establishes strong relationships with human services agencies, and directs the development of offerings, assets and thought leadership.

Mail to Debora Morris. This opens a new window. LinkedIn

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