Ensuring Leaders Get the Desired Results from Their Teams

(or the challenge of Problem A & Problem B)

Often it is the case in which highly motivated, intelligent, and well-meaning, individuals come together as a team, but the results produced are not acceptable to seniority, or acceptable to the organization. Why is this the case? Kirton’s Adaption-Innovation theory offers an explanation.

Whenever two or more individuals come together to solve a problem, another problem arises; which is how do we work together? The first problem, the task at hand bringing the group together is Problem A. Groups tend to form because they have a shared sense of solving Problem A. The diversity which each person brings to the team creates Problem B, which can limit progress towards solving Problem A. To be clear, greater diversity of thought and expression are an asset to the team if focus is maintained on solving Problem A. However, if members of the team place greater focus on the individualistic differences of each other, Problem A is neglected and the team will likely be unsuccessful in solving Problem A appropriately. Of course, individualistic differences matter in solving Problem A. We must know ourselves well to make the most use of ourselves in the problem-solving process.

KAI Problem A & B

Functional & Dysfunctional Teams – click image to view full size

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Successful teams devote more effort to solving Problem A than addressing Problem Bs. But this is not to diminish the significance of Problem Bs when they arise. In many teams, Problem Bs are associated with a team member showing contempt of other’s ideas in favour of their own, believing that their ideas are better because of who they are. Equally to this, Problem Bs arise when a team member or group is not gaining a fair share of the reward of solving Problem A, believing that they are being disregarded because of who they are. Successful leaders recognize the importance of focusing the team on solving Problem A, but address Problem Bs as they occur.

Given the makeup of different teams and the situations in which teams are placed, there are many causes of Problem Bs. Many times, these Problem Bs occur as a result of gaps between different team members in the following ways:

  • Differences in rankings of prioritized values
  • Differences in levels of motivation
  • Differences in available time and resources
  • Differences in status, ability, or experience
  • Differences in expectations
  • Differences in how individuals identify themselves
  • Differences in problem-solving style

One’s problem-solving style is connected to one’s personality, and unrelated to intelligence, learned skills, motivation, age, situation, belief systems, culture, and ethnicity. The KAI inventory is used to measure one’s problem-solving style, indicating if someone is more adaptive or more innovative on a continuum. More adaptive individuals prefer to solve problems with thoroughly vetted ideas, with intentions of making improvements, moving from the current status to the desired status in a more evolutionary approach. More innovative individuals prefer to solve problems with wide-ranging ideas, with intentions of making things different, moving from the current status to the desired status in a more revolutionary approach. On the continuum of KAI scores between the range of 32 and 160, a 20-point gap, or more, between the more adaptive and more innovative individual may contribute to a Problem B.

Note that there may be only one Problem A, because the perception of a second Problem A is considered a distraction, and therefore the second Problem A is a Problem B. In complex problem solving, there may be sequential Problem As for the team to consider solving in order. Because the more adaptive and the more innovative often perceive Problem A differently, conflict in the team may be established early in the problem-solving process.

The conflict between the more adaptive and the more innovative may occur in solving Problem A, because one individual may want to solve the problem more adaptively and the other wants to solve the problem more innovatively. However, another conflict between the more adaptive and the more innovative is often overlooked. One’s problem-solving style indicates a preference to solve all problems in their preferred style, including a preference for how to go about addressing Problem B. Working as a team, the more innovative have less need for group conformity and may fracture the team with wide ranging perceptions of the problem and hasty search for best solving Problem A. The more adaptive have more need for group conformity, and may delay progress on solving Problem A for too long, by insisting on mitigating Problem B before being comfortable enough to move forward. If the reward of solving Problem A is greater than the stress of resolving Problem Bs during the problem-solving process, the team will likely be successful in solving Problem A.

Coping and Bridging as Team Strategies

While one’s problem-solving style is innate, stable, and highly resistant to change, one may always choose to operate more adaptively or more innovatively through coping behaviour. Exhibiting coping behaviour requires self-awareness of the need to operate more adaptively or more innovatively, motivation to do so, and the learned skillset to modify one’s behaviour. The stress ensued from exhibiting coping behaviour is a factor of time needed to cope, effort exerted, and the degree of adaption or innovation outside of one’s preference. For example, one will likely find it easier to cope 20 points than to cope 60 points, and it will likely be easier to cope 60 points for one hour than to cope for 60 points for the entire day.

Appreciation should always be given to those who are exhibiting coping behaviour in effort to enable the team to better solve Problem A. If an individual is not coping, it may be because:

  • They don’t see the reward of solving Problem A as valuable
  • They have no motivation left due to being overextended
  • They believe they are correct in not needing to cope
  • They won’t admit they are wrong in recognizing the need to cope
  • They lack the necessary skillset as they never faced this Problem A or Problem B before

Oftentimes, an individual recognizes in the team that two others are in a conflict and can see a way forward if the two individuals can get along. In the case that the disagreement is due to a larger gap of problem-solving style, the first individual may serve as a bridger. There is no particular problem-solving style that is best suited for bridging, rather it is a social role who has the appropriate facilitation skills to help communicate a way forward. Bridgers are intrinsically motivated to get the team to work together, which is necessary to enable the amount of coping behaviour needed to get everyone back to focusing on an agreed upon solution to Problem A.

To Bridge successfully, a person should have a few key characteristics. These include:

  • The mutual respect of the people they are helping
  • Strong ability to mediate and facilitate discussions
  • Recognising the role of structure in a company – both its advantages and disadvantages
  • Adaptability to accommodate various external factors
  • Experience in helping people and teams to mitigate Problem B

Successful bridgers understand that structure has an important role in large organisations. They recognise that structure can be both enabling and limiting at the same time – and then communicate this, as appropriate, to the people they are helping. If explained effectively, it can better diminish Problem B. A bridger may also maintain higher levels of success by having a thorough understanding of Adaption-Innovation theory. Applying proper terminology and correctly attributing the causes of conflict helps the team better focus on Problem A, because less time is needed to dissect the cause of Problem B.

The Role of a KAI Practitioner

When a KAI Practitioner consults for a team or a large organisation, it is often recognized that the group needs help with solving Problem A, but the actual issue is the inability of the group to resolve Problem Bs. A KAI practitioner may use the KAI to identify gaps in problem-solving styles, which may be contributing to Problem Bs.

To help the team or large organization move forward, KAI practitioners have the aim of:

  • Getting a clear sense of the organization’s view of Problem A
  • Recognizing the main causes of Problem Bs
  • Finding ways to mitigate Problem B
  • Identifying the best process by which to solve Problem A

With these aims in mind, a KAI Practitioner can help teams improve performance, reduce conflict, and provide the results wanted by upper-level leadership.

In working with team members, the KAI Practitioner will often improve the leadership capabilities of individuals by helping them understand how they can better work with others. This process often entails having the individual identify the advantages and disadvantages of one’s personal problem-solving style, and best strategies for the two parties to work together for the common good. Many of these strategies are outlined in the KAI Certification Course.

A KAI practitioner helps team members recognize that more adaptive individuals and more innovative individuals are equals in the problem-solving process; neither being better than the other, in general. There is not an ideal KAI score, rather both more adaptive and more innovative individuals are needed to work together to solve complex problems. A more adaptive person may benefit from gaining permission to slightly loosen the structure in order to appropriately complete a task; helping to reduce Problem B, and increase focus on Problem A. For a more innovative person, it is helpful to recognize that rules being imposed are not necessarily limiting, but are instead designed to protect them. Once again, this can address Problem B and increase focus on Problem A.

Solutions to Problem A thrive when there is a safe space for sharing ideas without judgement of the individual in promoting the idea. Rather the idea is judged to be appropriate on its own merit. KAI practitioners can help teams build this safe space by promoting mutual respect and humility among team members. Mutual respect is needed to recognize the limits of capability in fellow team members, and humility is needed to recognize the limits of capability within oneself. It is naturally human to have items in which we excel in completing and items in which we struggle. By recognizing that we each have unique and valid perception of Problem A and Problem B, and that each perception is considered equal in the problem-solving process, we can learn to better work together and aim to make our world a better place to live and work.