Welcome to the KAI podcast series ‘Building Better Teams and Great Leaders’.

KAI, or the Kirton Adaption Innovation inventory is the world’s foremost measure for problem solving style. It is used widely to create cohesive and productive teams and effective leaders. It’s been in use for over 40 years and is supported by a large body of academic research from around the world. In these podcasts, we aim to shine a light on the issues and problems facing all teams as they strive to be effective and productive.

In today’s episode we are going to explore the issue of diversity and how this plays out within the context of KAI.

Hosted by Dave Harries, with Dr James Anderson: Associate Professor of Leadership Education at the University of Georgia and a qualified KAI practitioner. He has over 20 years’ experience in both educational and corporate settings, with a professional focus on the creation, implementation, and evaluation of training initiatives aimed at personal and career competencies.

Dave is also joined by Dr Mary Rodriguez, an Assistant Professor of Community Leadership at The Ohio State University. She has worked in higher education since 2012 and is particularly skilled in data analysis, programme evaluation and research into community leadership. She is also a KAI practitioner.

Hosted by Dave Harries, with Dr Mary Rodriguez & Dr James Anderson.

Transcript - click here

DH: Dave Harries
JA: James Anderson
MR: Mary Rodriquez

DH: [0:00:00.0] Welcome to the KAI podcast series ‘Building Better Teams and Great Leaders’.

KAI, or the Kirton Adaption Innovation inventory is the world’s foremost measure for problem solving style. It is used widely to create cohesive and productive teams and effective leaders. It’s been in use for over 40 years and is supported by a large body of academic research from around the world. In these podcasts, we aim to shine a light on the issues and problems facing all teams as they strive to be effective and productive.

In today’s episode we are going to explore the issue of diversity and how this plays out within the context of KAI.

Hosted by Dave Harries, with Dr James Anderson: Associate Professor of Leadership Education at the University of Georgia and a qualified KAI practitioner. He has over 20 years’ experience in both educational and corporate settings, with a professional focus on the creation, implementation, and evaluation of training initiatives aimed at personal and career competencies.

Dave is also joined by Dr Mary Rodriguez, an Assistant Professor of Community Leadership at The Ohio State University. She has worked in higher education since 2012 and is particularly skilled in data analysis, programme evaluation and research into community leadership. She is also a KAI practitioner.

Welcome, Mary and James. It’s very good of you to join us on the podcast. I wonder if we might start by defining our terms a little bit, Mary, perhaps I could come to you first, to get you to define something, which I know is quite fundamental to KAI and that’s what we mean by ‘innovation’ in this context.

MR: [0:01:44.6] Absolutely. So innovation can be thought of in a few different ways. Especially in our everyday lives, we might think of innovation as just the development of something new. But in particular, we associate a lot of value with innovation, we think that innovation has to be really great, it has to be super different, it has to be something out of this world, something that we’ve not seen before.

And often times when we look at innovation, or when we say that person is really innovative, we associate a lot of positive attributes to that. They are creative, for instance. We use the word ‘creativity’ associated with innovation.

But here when we talk about the KAI, we want to look at it a little bit differently. According to the KAI – Kirton’s Adaptive Innovation theory – we see that somebody who is more innovative, and we use the terminology ‘more innovative’ versus ‘innovator’ or ‘innovative’ to demonstrate that they approach problem solving in a completely different way. A more innovative individual, according to KAI, is a person who looks at a problem and they look to see how can they solve this problem by making something different?

I guess in contrast, I might say that it is important to think about a person who is more innovative in their problem solving style, as opposed to someone who might be more adaptive in their problem solving style. More adaptive individuals come at the problem still very creatively, but they’re looking at it a little bit differently. They look to see how they can make the problem better, or how they can adjust what they’ve got in front of them to make it better.

So in this context, when we think about the more adaptive individuals or the more adaptive approach, or preference to problem solving, we want to think about not so much about creativity, not so much about the development of ideas that are going to be completely opposed to what we’re already doing. Rather, we think about it more in terms of how this individual is looking at how to make things different. They work a little bit outside of the structure, they work a little bit outside of the rules and regulations and policies. We’re really trying to distinguish the fact that it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re more creative, Both types of problem solvers are creative. They’re just creative in different ways.

DH: [0:04:02.8] Okay, brilliant. I think that’s cleared that really well. So if I’ve understood it correctly, it doesn’t matter whether you’re on the adaptive end or the innovative end, you can still be creative, you’re still making a contribution. It’s just the way you do it.

So listen, we’re going to get on to talking about diversity in a minute. But before we do, I wonder if I could turn to James, and get you James to talk a little bit about Kirton’s Cognitive Schema, which sounds like a very complicated and academic theory, but I know it’s real world stuff this. So tell me what that is and then perhaps why that matters in the world of diversity.

JA: [0:04:39.0] So the cognitive function schema really talks about the relationship between an individual’s thought process, their behaviour, and how it is valued in the environment. And so for any of our educators out there, it is very similar to Bandura’s social cognitive theory where we’re talking about those personal factors, those behavioural factors, and then those environmental factors.

And so in the schema, when we talk about what’s going on in the head, what’s that cognitive function, Kirton breaks it down into three categories. He looks at cognitive resources, cognitive effect, and cognitive affect.

So when we’re looking at the cognitive affect, we’re talking about the emotions behind someone, their needs, and why they’re seeking change, and how they connect to other people in order to realise this change.

When we’re talking about cognitive resources, we’re talking about those things that they’ve learned over time and they’ve stored it, and they’re able to recall it to help with the problem solving process.

And then when we’re talking about cognitive effect, this is where AI comes into play, particularly when we’re talking about how people process that information and the approach that they use in order to solve those problems. So we were talking a little bit about their potential level or their intellect. But what KAI looks at is their preference for using this information, and so are they going to be on the more adaptive side, which means that they like to work within the structure to find solutions? Or are they going to be on the more innovative side, which means are they going to be outside that structure? They want something a little bit more loose, they’re not bound by the norms of the system.

So that’s what’s going on in the head, the psychology of it. We also have the sociology of it, which is looking at how these people interact with people around them. And so what is the social effect of the decisions that they’re making, the social effect of their style of processing problems, and the social effect of the behaviours that go along? And so that leads us nicely into the conversation of diversity.

The many times when we talk about diversity in KAI, we talk about it from the cognitive diversity of looking at your preference. Are you more adaptive or more innovative? What we need to start talking about is more of that social diversity as well. What is happening in the environment – particularly as it relates to people’s identity – because that has a huge impact on needs, on values, on beliefs, which is so much a part of how we collaborate in order to solve problems.

DH: [0:07:28.2] So do you think that it would be fair to say in that case, that w what we bring to the table in terms of our prejudices, our preconceptions, our education, or background, all those sorts of things, they have a direct effect on the way we perceive others – in this case in our team, and therefore have a real effect on the way we interact?

JA: [0:07:51.0] It has a huge effect, and it is very complex.

So the reason why I say that is number one, we’re working with our preferred style. So you have people that are more adaptive and more innovative. And then we’re working on our cognitive effect, which is what are our needs, our values? And if we have different values, different needs, different beliefs, different motives, that’s another layer of complexity. And then we add on top of that cognitive resources. What have we learned? And sometimes the society that we’re in can either enable us to learn, or they will limit us from our learning.

So all of these different complexities related to diversity is all a part of this thought of AI. And as leaders, we have to learn how to manage all of that. It’s not just managing the cognitive effect. It’s the affect, it’s the problem B, how do we interact with each other so that we can actually get to the solutions in a more efficient and effective way? Our backgrounds are so tied into our solution or a problem solving approach.

DH: [0:09:02.7] I want to come on to problem A and problem B in a sec as well and talk about that in more detail in relation to this. But before I do, Mary, is there any evidence that one’s background, the way you’re educated, the way you’re brought up, where you come from, even your ethnicity for that matter, has any effect on where you appear on the inventory?

MR: [0:09:25.4] That’s a really great question, Dave. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t. The KAI is meant to measure your preferred solving style preference, which we have found through several bouts of research to show that it is actually innate. This is something that is unique to you, as you as an individual not necessarily you as an individual as a part of a social group. And so this is where we start to separate this from culture.

When we think about culture, that’s where we shift into understanding the cognitive schema and seeing the environment’s effect on individuals in problem solving style. When we think about the KAI and diversity, this is where we start to see this intersection – a unique intersection of psychology and sociology where we could consider perhaps the brain and culture. The KAI is really primarily looking at the brain. This is really this inmate way that individuals approach problem solving in a more adaptive manner, or in a more innovative manner.

However, we need to see the impact of sociology and culture, we start to see biases, prejudice, how people perceive one another, and how people of walk through this world, their environment. All of these things start to tell us “Well, these are actually really important because you can’t separate the innate individual’s problem solving from their environment, and how they approach what’s going on in problems and teams.’

DH: [0:10:53.4] So let’s talk a little bit about the problem A and problem B part of this. So before we do that, I wonder James whether you could quickly remind us and our listeners who perhaps are not so familiar with the KAI system, of what the problem A, problem B intersection is and how that works.

JA: [0:11:10.2] Yes, I can, Dave. So within any problem solving process that we have, there are two problems actually. Kirton has labelled them problem A and problem B.

Problem A is actually the problem that we’re trying to solve. That’s the way that we’re trying to manage change. And so when we bring a group of people together to try to move us from one point to another, that focus, that initial reason and purpose for us being there problem A.

However, there’s also this problem B, and that is the issues that come about when you work with other people, those interpersonal interactions. We spend a lot of time trying to manage people and not enough time on managing the problem A. So where we’re trying to go with this, is if we understand people, if we understand how their identity plays a role in the problem solving process, if we understand who we are as leaders, then we’re better able to manage those problem B’s, those interpersonal problems, so that our team is efficient, they’re effective, and they actually really want to work together. So they’re motivated in order to get it done.

So how Kirton describes it in the problem solving process there is this group dynamic. So what do we need to do to change the group dynamics, or the problem B so that we can actually get to our purpose, the problem A?

DH: [0:12:41.4] So on the face of it, based on those excellent definitions you just gave, it seems to me that the majority of let’s say, diversity issues, if there are such things, would be in within problem B because clearly there might be prejudices there. There might be sexism, racism, ageism, whatever ‘ism’ it might be. But is that strictly true? I mean, do diversity issues come up within problem A as well?

Mary, in your experience, can problem A be affected by issues of diversity?

MR: [0:13:12.4] I think it can as a matter of fact. So problem A and the way that we approach problem A – and problem A is really just the issue at hand. What is it that we’re trying to actually address? So individuals can look at problem A very differently, depending on where they come from, their personal experiences, the challenges and / or opportunities that privileges have afforded them throughout their lives. It can really greatly affect the way that problem A is defined. And so if individuals are seeing the problem in two different ways, regardless of their preferred problem solving style, then this already creates an issue between the group and the problem, and it can also exacerbate issues between the group and individuals within the group as well, especially when they’re not even agreeing on what it is that they’re actually trying to solve.

JA: [0:14:08.0] I wanted to just give an example of something that’s real life going on in the US right now. which deals with social diversity and the way that we approach solving that problem, with problem A being an interpersonal issue. That would be the issue with the way that police are treating people of colour. So what I mean by that, is that can be that problem A of trying to find equality in the way that we interact – police and citizens interact. That is an interpersonal issue, but that at its face is the problem A for us right now. How do we address these interpersonal issues that’s going on? There are many people trying to address it in different ways. So a person who is more adaptive says, “Let’s look at the policies. Let’s look at training. Let’s look at the structure that’s currently there, and let’s make it better.”

And then you have people that may be on the more innovative side. “Well, we’ve tried policies before. Many of our police are trained, and so it’s not working. There are bigger issues. And when there is a bigger issue, there needs to be a completely different way of working with it. So let’s disrupt, let’s loosen up the structure. I don’t care if the norm is for us to follow policy. Let’s break that mould.”

And so I think that is a wonderful example of what Mary was talking about, that yes, you can have interpersonal issues in that problem A, but it has to be what you’re trying to address. And then even within that, people are going to address it in two different ways. Do we work within the system or do we break the entire system? Breaking that system can be very uncomfortable.

DH: [0:15:56.6] So given that problem A can be fraught with difficulties, in this context, in the context of diversity, it seems to me that problem B is going to be even worse – a sort of order of magnitude worse in terms of misunderstandings and prejudices and that sort of thing.

So James talk to me a little bit about problem B, and the issues that can occur within this context and how the KAI system can try and address that.

JA: [0:16:23.0] I think that the first thing that we have to understand when we’re talking about this social diversity, these cultural issues, is that we have to understand power, and the role that power plays in that. Even with the example that I just provided for you, there are multiple ways to get to the resolution that we need. The question is based on who is in power, and where do they want to take it? Many times when we’re talking about diverse groups, those that are in power have control. If the person in power is more innovative, then they will accept those more innovative approaches. If they are more adaptive, then they’re going to want those more adaptive approaches in order to solve it.

When we’re dealing with ugly issues of inequity, it’s all fair game for everyone, and so you have people of different approaches trying to do it and that’s why it becomes messy. And so I think that where our discussions should be as leaders on how we address these ill-structured problems, should be around a holistic approach of understanding power dynamics, of understanding authentic leadership, of understanding how the leader needs to have humility, how we need to promote mutual respect. All of these things go into play here.

But I think it is a discussion about how do we manage the power structures that are in this and I think that Mary, knowing the work that she does, puts a lot of emphasis in that type of discussion.

DH: [0:18:02.2] And Mary, given what James has just said, it strikes me that the approach of KAI has much wider implications for teaching us how to deal with one another in wider society than simply in the Board room or on the shop floor of a factory or wherever our team is operating. It seems to go much wider than that from what you’re both saying.

MR: [0:18:27.4] I think there’s a lot of value to understanding how people are approaching different problems, understanding whether they want to operate or they prefer to operate within the structure and really prefer to address issues through policy change or through training, as James was talking about earlier.

But I think it’s important to consider that this is just another component of understanding the individuals and how they’re approaching different problems. The reason that we’re talking about diversity today – and through the lens of KAI – is because in general the KAI doesn’t really bring in the concept of cultural and socially decided norms and values and how people approach problem solving through that lens. It’s just a different component to the bigger issue of problem solving.

I think, for example, in my work in communities, when we are trying to create change in communities and trying to help better the lives of individuals, we really have to think about how do individuals problem solve and how are they going to approach issues like food insecurity in their household? I think for instance, when you said a greater or a more broader impact, absolutely, it can really help us – but we can’t forget that there are these bigger things that are at play that create these pervasive problems like food insecurity. There are issues of inequality that exist in society that has created or has perpetuated the issues of food security for certain groups more than others. It also holds resources away from different individuals that need it most, just according to who they are in different sets of society.

And so I think that the KAI provides this additional way of looking at how to help individuals and community members work through problem solving. But this conversation and the different pieces that James just brought up are essential to consider how can we navigate these huge structural pieces within our society at the same time? It almost feels like we have to understand both of these concepts to be able to manage both of these pieces – the cognitive function of the individual and the societal implications that make problem solving so difficult and complex.

DH: [0:20:57.9] And James, it’s coming over very strongly to me that this is about the individual to a large extent, and their recognition by others as to their problem solving style, but also giving them respect, I suppose.

So talk to me about that. I know Kirton talks a lot about mutual respect and those interactions culturally. What part does that play, or what part should it play?

JA: [0:21:23.9] I think people are listening and they say, “Well, you’ve created or you’ve presented this very complex issue, and I’m one person and how do I address that?” I say, we do not address it alone. We have to address it as a group of people. So I think that the beautiful thing about KAI and about even looking at the cognitive function schema is that it provides for us a framework in which we can begin to deal with this ill structure problem. So what I mean by that is really thinking about what type of environment you want to create in the workspace that you’re in, wherever it is. How do you want to acknowledge people’s cognitive effect or their needs, their values, their motive for being there, their motive for wanting to work on the work that needs to get done?

If we situate ourselves in really addressing the problem B, about creating an inclusive space, a space where all of this diversity is appreciated – and that’s one of the things that we teach about and facilitate within KAI. We did it from the standpoint of cognitive diversity, but we want to open that discussion up and say all forms of diversity, because your preferred style, your gender, your ethnicity, your sexuality, all of those things impact cognition, and all of those things impact group dynamics, and all of those things impact the way that we will approach problems.

And so as a leader, there are two things that I want to give you when I related to when I talked about a holistic approach. The first one, as you say, was that mutual respect. And the second thing would be humility.

Within mutual respect I think about being intentional about the interactions that we have with people. That is very much like cultural intelligence. So what are we doing to really get to understand the people that we work with and to acknowledge it? We don’t want to tolerate, we don’t want people to assimilate, we want to accept. And I think that that cultural intelligence framework is a beautiful way of helping us to implement mutual respect. We’re talking about our motivation. What is our motivation to work with people that are different from us? Our cognition. What do we already know about the people that we’re working with, about their needs, about their attitudes about their beliefs? And if we don’t know it, what can we do to learn it?

And then the next one would be that metacognition or talking about what strategies? How am I going to be intentional about embracing you, intentional about using your strengths to help us to solve these problems?

And then the last thing, my behaviours. If I say that I want to be inclusive, if I say that I truly understand diversity and all its complexity, and I want to create a space where people can contribute to our problem solving in a meaningful way, then what behaviours, what actions am I doing in order to demonstrate that I want to work with people? What am I doing to address the problem Bs in our team? So that’s what I say about that mutual respect. How are we being intentional?

And then the last thing would be about our humility. As a leader, we have to really take an inward look at ourselves and know what we can do and what we can’t do. That’s why I said it’s not about you by yourself. It’s about you as a team. So often as a leader we have to put the weight on our shoulders, and we don’t have to do that. And this is where emotional intelligence comes into play. So are we truly self-aware about our limitations and do we own them? Are we self-regulating? So are we doing what we can do? Are we consistent with our behaviours? Are we making decisions that will be beneficial to all on our team or are we being selfish within those decisions?

Going back to that motivation, re we creating a space where people are driven to work together, that they want to collaborate, that they are excited about addressing that problem A? And then do we have empathy and the social skills needed to navigate when there’s conflict? Because there will be conflict, anytime there’s difference there will be conflict. But how are we navigating through that? How are we picking people that are skilled in those areas to help us to move through that?

So I think that’s where I go with saying what can we do to address the diversity issue? What we can do is come together and realise that we can’t do it on our own. There has to be some humility there, but there has to be mutual respect. And as a leader, you can facilitate that in your workspace.

DH: [0:26:10.3] Mary, finally, do you think our leaders now, or the leaders of the leaders of the future, the ones that are being trained now, are they being made aware of this type of thing? This term that James just used – ‘cultural intelligence,’ not a term that I’ve come across before, I must admit, but it’s a wonderful term, isn’t it? And it really does sum it up brilliantly. So cultural intelligence and of course that humility. I mean, are we teaching our leaders that sort of stuff?

MR: [0:26:33.5] I hope that we are. I think that as educators of leadership and community leadership, I know that we do spend quite a bit of time helping our students and our constituents that we’re working with, in my case, in communities, understanding and appreciating the diversity that people bring to the table.

So I hope that we are training individuals and future leaders to be thinking about this. I’ll just add to what James was saying. I often teach my students this concept with the terms of cultural humility. So approaching understanding individuals through you, through your humility, but also taking the time to know where they’re coming from, and taking the time and the desire to appreciate where they’re coming from. So I really hope that we are teaching our students and future leaders about mutual respect through understanding cultural intelligence and humility – because I think that is the way that we are going to address big problems in the future.

We have seen that no matter what field you’re in, no matter what area you work in, you will encounter people of different cultures and different backgrounds. You will have to work in this really diverse workforce and diverse world, so I think that those concepts are essential to helping people be successful, and helping teams be successful in their problem solving.

DH: [0:27:57.0] And James, if I could just give you the last word. I mean, are you hopeful for the future of leadership, everything we’ve talked about? Mary just made a brilliant point that we are going to be faced with this whether we like it or not as leaders. Are you optimistic that we’re going to start getting better at this?

JA: [0:28:12.7] I am optimistic. I think that everything that’s gone on from the pandemic, to shifts in political interactions across the globe, has really pushed us to a place where we have to stop and reflect and to reset. I think that we are doing it in the workplace through training. I think that we’re doing at our schools through many of the emotionally intelligent activities that they’re doing in the schools. And I think that we are doing it with even some of our adults through some of our community activities. And so I think we’re all in this place where we’re like, the way that we have done it is not working because we’re coming up against some issues. The old way is not addressing. So we have to find better ways of doing that, and the question is for each situation we’re going to approach it a different way. Are we going to approach it from a more adaptive way of really making these policies and procedures better, which has its place? Or are we going to approach it from an innovative way, saying let’s try something new? I think the answer is we have to do both.

DH: [0:29:22.2] Well, thank you both very much for sharing your wisdom with us.

You’ve been listening to the KAI podcast with our special guests, Dr James Anderson, and Dr Mary Rodriguez. If you found the discussion interesting, you can find out more about the KAI system and its first class team development potential at www.kaicentre.com.

In the meantime, please subscribe and share this podcast and thanks for listening.