In today’s episode we’re going to explore team leadership and in particular how insightful leaders build high performance teams.

Hosted by Dave Harries, with Dr Curt Friedel & Rob Sheffield.

Dr Curt Friedel

Rob Sheffield

Dave Harries


Dr Curt Friedel is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Co-operative Problem Solving at Virginia Tech in the USA where he is also the Director of the KAI Certification Course.

Rob Sheffield has 25 years of experience in leadership development. Rob helps leaders enable innovation in their teams.

Transcript - click here

DH: Dave Harries
CF: Dr Curt Friedel
RS: Rob Sheffield

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’s used widely to create cohesive and productive teams and effective leaders. It’s been around for about 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’re going to explore team leadership and in particular how insightful leaders build high performance teams.
My name is Dave Harries and joining me from the United States and Britain are two people who are going to help us answer that question.
Dr Curt Friedel is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Co-operative Problem Solving at Virginia Tech in the USA, where he is also the Director of the KAI Certification Course. Rob Sheffield is a UK based author, consultant and trainer with over 25 years in leadership development. His book ‘How Leaders Learn to Boost Creativity in Teams innovation Catalysts’ came in 2019.

Welcome both of you to the podcast. I wonder if I could start with you, Curt, with a quick reminder of what the Kirton Adaption Innovation inventory actually is.

CF: [0:01:24.9] Yes, We were talking about adaption and innovation. In the broader sense about how adaption contrasts with innovation with respect to style.

So, to give an example. If a system isn’t working, say it’s a system around quality of product. To ensure quality of product, the more adaptive prefer to tweak the system to make it better and the more innovative would prefer to think differently enough to swap out the system. We each have a preferred style to solving problems that we can measure with the KAI either more adaptively or more innovatively. When we use the KAI we know that one’s KAI scores are independent of intelligence, independent of motivations, values, culture, ethnicity etc. Many measures of capacity. So when we’re using the KAI we know we’re measuring problem solving style and if a team isn’t working well, we can attribute it accordingly.

The KAI measures one’s preferred problem solving style on a continuum between 32 and 160. We each have a score and a score in the case if we’re more adaptive or more innovative. There’s no better score. It’s a non-pejorative scale so there’s no better style than the other. It follows a normal distribution, the average is 95. So if someone scores between 95 and 160 they prefer to be more innovative in their problem solving style, and if they score between 95 and 32, they tend to be more adaptive.

DH: [0:03:00.4] Okay, well thank you very much for summing that all up for us, Curt. Rob, I wonder if I could turn to you now and ask you about how the KAI method relates to leadership in general and innovation in particular.

RS: [0:03:13.5] Thanks, Dave. It’s great to be here by the way, and good to be doing this with you and Curt. I think it’s just a fascinating area, all this, isn’t it? Curt’s just given a description, a definition of this inventory we’re going to talk about today, Adaptive Innovation.

All of us have… You probably come to be listening to this with a view about innovation. It’s very topical, maybe it’s even hyped as a topic. Most people think innovation is a good thing, and it’s often pretty difficult to get them doing it, what is actually innovative and what isn’t. So in true will, we’ll probably get into a bit of that as we go along as well.
I think one of the reasons why it’s part of the leadership agenda now is that it seems that the complexity of work has been increasing just as a bit of a rule of thumb over the last decade or so. But survey after survey seems to say that a reasonable complex work to be done. So that work could mean continually thinking about what’s value for our customers, a chance to look at products, services, business models, processes, etc, experience and so on. And that work is difficult work. There is no single right answer to it. So what seems to be happening is diverse teams are being set up to deal with that work because it needs a range of views on how to deal with it.

Those teams may be geographically separated, they’ll certainly deliberately different perspectives to deal with the complexity of that work, and that – and I’m sure we’ll get into it – raises a lot of implications for the leadership and getting the best out of that team. So I think that’s part of the context of why innovative leadership is on the agenda more than it was a handful of years ago.

DH: [0:05:14.4] And could I ask, given that we talk about innovation so much in generally a very positive way – leaders particularly, who are seen as innovators are regarded, I think, positively. Does that mean if you are somewhere down at the lower end of the scale – so you’re an adaptor in other words, is there a danger that we’re saying, “Oh, well, if you’re an adaptor, you can’t be a leader?” I’m sure that’s not true but is there a danger people might interpret that way? What do you think about that, Curt?

CF: [0:05:44.0] As we’re defining innovation in the KAI system, it is about style. In part of the culture we speak about innovation and in terms of capacity. In my opinion this might be a controversial statement, but I believe the word ‘innovation’ is being overused. We tend to throw the word ‘innovation’ here and there. So and so is innovative. That idea is innovative, but when we contrast innovation with adaption – and that’s what we do with KAI – the word ‘innovation’ has a bit more meaning.

We can look at innovation and true innovation – that is looking at style and how something might be new – and that is a different system or a different thing, a different idea. But we can also have adaptive new or I should say adaptive new ideas that when we work on a system or want to develop something new, it can be adaptive because we’re tweaking on something. We’re adding more detail, we’re adding more structure. We get bogged down with this word ‘innovation’ and we do a lot of work educating here at Virginia Tech on helping people understand the difference.
You’re correct, Dave. There is no better style. Someone can be very adaptive, very creative, very intelligent, very passionate about their work. They just prefer to solve the problem differently, and we tend to look over that with this present culture of preferring innovation.

DH: [ 0:07:14.0] Okay, so if I understand that correctly, by the popular definition of innovation, adaption is a form of innovation and that’s basically our starting point.

CF: [0:07:25.3] Yeah, that’s the way you could say it.

DH: [0:07:27.7] So, listen, we’re talking about insightful leaders, building high performance teams today. So let’s start specifically on that conversation by trying to define what is a high performing team. It seems to me that lots of people might have different views about this.

Rob, I wonder whether you could address that first. What do you think of as a high performing team and is there a single definition or is that not very helpful?

RS: [0:07:53.0] I think there isn’t a single definition, Dave. First of all I would say probably most leaders they don’t rigorously determine what performance means. I think that’s part of the truth, but the ones that do, they will always look at performance in context. It’s all down to the context of the work of the team, isn’t it? And some teams may be more quantifiably measurable, so if we’re dealing with sales teams or negotiation teams we can get some kind of financial sense of teams outperforming each other. Most teams don’t have those obvious objective figures leaping out, so there’ll need to be some kind of agreement about what performance means. It might be time, it might be quality, it might be cost, it might be other indications, but I think we’ll get onto insights and what makes a leader insightful.

To me, there’s always something about them working out what performance means in their context and that’s got to include stakeholder perceptions. We’ve all been led and most of us have led as well. The importance of managing our own boss is key, and possibly the boss’ boss, but also peers and so on and so on.

So I think my experience is there’s a huge amount of subjectivity in performance, but an insightful leader will try to get some agreement around all of that.

DH: [0:09:26.1] And Curt, in terms of looking at a high performance team, do the general rules apply to any team? Obviously there’s lots of different types of teams. At one end there’s a sports team, a football team. At the other end there’s a marketing team or a product development team. Does it matter? Do the general rules of the KAI system apply to all teams, would you say?

CF: [0:09:52.9] Yes, I think they really do. That’s what makes Adaption Innovation theory and the KAI so robust, is it does apply to a lot of principles associated with team work and the science of teams.

A great example is a study that was done by Google called Project Aristotle. Project Aristotle was named after, I believe, under the idea that Aristotle was quoted as saying that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. But Google Project Aristotle was looking at what makes the perfect team? They looked at a whole host of variables such as gender, age, different personality indicators, how often they met as a team, did they socialise outside the team? And what they found was that a lot of those variables do not make the difference, but there was thing that continually showed up time and time again as what makes an effective team. That was a safe space for people to share ideas without judgment, without negativity towards the person and that requires two things in my mind – respect and humility.

When we apply to the KAI system, we need to have mutual respect of each other on a team. So I know your KAI score, you know mine and we know where we are at, and know how we can work together. I know your limits and you know my limits, but it’s also humility at recognising I know where my limits are and I don’t always have the best idea. Someone else might have a better idea that could work better.

DH: [0:11:31.3] So a lot of it’s about valuing other members of your team and having a bit of knowledge about what their KAI score is can help you with that valuation presumably?

CF: [0:11:41.1] Yeah, it all goes back to self-awareness.

DH: [0:11:42.5] So, Rob, how do you think, in your experience of working with teams, how are most teams actually formed? Presumably you don’t normally sit down and say, “Right, well, we want somebody who’s 115 and we want somebody else who’s 78 and so on and so forth.” Tell me a little bit about that aspect of real life, as it were.

RS: [0:12:04.7] I think that’s right, Dave, Well, first of all, if you join an organisation or move within an organisation, you probably inherit the team that you land with. Of course, you might then form project teams where you do have a bit more latitude about which people to put together. But I think from most leaders, it’s probably a bit of a combination of this is the team I’ve got and these are the people I’ve got. How can I learn more about them and them learn more about me? I’m sure there’s a lot to these people I just don’t know, so there’s that kind of understanding and exploring, but I think there also can be opportunities, like we say with transformational teams, with project teams, to think about the composition of the team.
I’d also say that maybe things are shifting a bit in that direction as well. If we go back to this more recent trend, but actually there’s a bit more thought going into it now – trying to match the complexity of the work with the complexity of the team. That means diverse teams.

I mean, truthfully, for most of my corporate life things weren’t like that. I’ve been running the business for about 20 years and I’ve seen much more of that over the last decade. So I think that thoughtfulness possibly in medium and larger sized organisations where they have the potential to mix and match people, I think it’s going on more now because the difficulty, the complexity of the work demands it.

It’s interesting Curt talking about the Google example and psychological safety. There’s a lot that’s been about psychological safety by a Professor at Harvard called Amy Edmondson. She’s written a book called ‘The Fearless Organisation.’ One of the things she’s saying is she has noticed searching for the term ‘psychological safety’ increase a lot through Google and other search engines. It’s increased a lot over the last five years. She thinks it’s because a lot of work’s now being done where people simply don’t know the answer. In order to do that sort of work you have to bring different people together, and that means in a way you have to make it safe. If you start by people not knowing each other, but you bring them deliberately for their difference you have to provide some psychological safety. So maybe the landscape is changing a bit around this.

DH: [0:14:30.4] So when we talk about an insightful leader as we have done in the title of this podcast, are we talking about a person who recognises all that and can therefore create that safe psychological space for his team?

CF: [0:14:47.3] Yeah, I think insightful leaders do recognise the value of teams, that teams generally speaking, give you the better idea. It could take a little bit longer to come up with that better idea but it’s worth it. It’s worth the time.

And I think insightful leaders know how to build that mutual respect, build that trust in the realm of psychological safety. I also think insightful leaders are good at realising they know who they are and they know they need to hire someone, and that person should not be thinking like they do. It’s very often we’re not self-aware that I think to myself, “Well, I’m innovative, this is how I think and I’m pretty smart so I should hire people who think like me.” That’s not what we teach and it’s not what we want. We should be hiring a diversity of people.

I think some people do definitely get it. Even if they’ve never heard of KAI or the Adaption Innovation theory, they recognise that I can be really bad at something and that’s okay. I can hire someone to cover that for me and move forward with the team.

DH: [0:15:56.5] Yeah, I’m really interested in this use of the phrase ‘self-aware.’ Traditionally, I think, a lot of leaders have probably felt under pressure – probably some still do – to be perfect, to be good at everything, and to lead.

I remember talking to an around the world skipper about this, taking an amateur crew round the world in huge, dangerous situations and him realising that his leadership got much more effective when he realised he couldn’t do everything and that he did need help. So that’s very interesting.

Rob, if you have a leader who is self-aware, let’s make that assumption, and they inherit a team, as you said – they come into a new job or they get given a team that perhaps isn’t so self-aware or perhaps has been dysfunctional in the past, what can that self-aware, that insightful leader do? What are the steps he or she can take to improve that team?

RS: [0:16:59.0] I think of an example here. I did some work with Donna a couple of years ago, and I somebody I know well. Donna was running a UK business that served and supported SMEs in the UK and they provided employee benefits packages to SMEs. So in a way they tried to help those organisations with their employee retention and Donna is pretty innovative. She’s in the top quarter on the continuum that Curt talked about earlier, so she’s a strong innovator and she realises she gets energised by thinking about strategy and vision. The context was that her wider business that identified a lot of growth potential for the SME market and that really excited her. She could see very quickly she could join the dots and see the potential.

Her team hadn’t been through this kind of change scale before and I think she was a bit frustrated about the pace of change. Anyway, we did a KAI exercise with Donna and the team. In retrospect it was obvious that Donna was a strong innovator, the rest of the team were more adaptive – bang around the middle of the continuum but also some strong adaptors. So, for them, the pace that she wanted to move at was a little too much, but also it’s hard to disagree with the boss when the boss is excited. You don’t want to be the one bursting the balloon.

So I think there was a bit… you can sense the emotions all around, but Donna is very self-aware and she realised all of that. She understood it, and the short thing is she realised she needed to get somebody who could bring the team along with her at a more day to day level. She recruited somebody who was a moderate adaptor I would say – this person, having met her a couple of times – who could really translate some of the broad aims of the strategy and the vision into every day terms for people. And also was able to talk it through with them and talk in more operational language. It made a massive difference. The things that you and Curt have been talking about. Donna has got lots of humility.

It’s not nice-y, nice-y leadership this, because it’s all about really accurately understanding yourself and Donna really knows her strengths and she wanted to use her strengths, and her strengths were needed. What she realised was it would be difficult for her to be everything, and she didn’t need to. So growth was happening, some investment was possible, she was able to recruit somebody and that person did, and is, doing a terrific job.

DH: [0:19:54.6] Presumably that, the members of the team, if they embrace and understand the implications of where they are on the continuum, then they’re going to be more in that case perhaps accepting of Donna’s enthusiasm for change and that sort of thing because they’ll understand a bit more about where she’s coming from.

CF: [0:20:16.0] Absolutely. We have a term for it which seems to address the issues of ‘okay, I understand you a little bit better now and I understand me a little bit better now. I know this is different from motive and intelligence so now that we have a term for it, we can call it what it is and we can work around it and work with it.’ That’s huge for a team to move forward and make progress.

DH: [0:20:41.7] I remember chatting to a guy who used to be in charge of the Red Arrows, which is the British flying team that is quite famous throughout the world. Obviously, again, it’s a very dangerous thing to do as a team. You’ve got to be very highly trained and work very well together. He was telling me that during the debrief sessions after every demonstration – he is the leader, he’s the first one to stick his hand in the air and say, “I got that wrong. I got that wrong. I’ll do that better next time, really sorry about that.” So he provided that psychological space that we were talking about earlier for everybody else to then say, “It’s okay. If the boss admits he got it wrong, then it’s okay for me to admit I got it wrong.” Is that an example of an insightful leader?

RS: [0:21:23.6] For sure. In a way, a lot of these principles we’re talking about, they can begin without the use of adaptive innovation. It’s a measure of the way in which we think and there are huge differences in the way we think.

I give you a very dramatic example of something I remember from the late 90s when I worked in aerospace. We had had a really difficult time with the previous manager. Most of the team had left. I joined the company about six months ago. I was beginning to think, “Maybe this isn’t quite the move I’d hoped it would be.” We got a new manager. He inherited a couple of us, the rest had left.

So maybe a month later, we got a couple more people into the team but we didn’t really know… We’d had a few meetings, of course, with the manager, but he organised what he called a ‘transition interview,’ where he said, ‘You can ask me anything you want to because it’s going to help for us to find out about each other quickly.’ So Pete, his name is – I’m still in touch with him – he gave us carte blanche to ask whatever we wanted and it was like a moderated discussion of the Friday afternoon. One of the team took the responsibility to hand him the questions. We sat down, we had some lunch together and we went through the questions. Somebody asked, “When was the last time you cried?” And he said, “Well, about nine months ago when my Dad died.”
Now, I can’t remember anything else from that meeting, but I do remember thinking, “Wow! The fact that this person’s prepared to invite us to ask what we want, and then answer the questions we’ve asked, it really, really stuck with me. It’s like the old thing, isn’t it? You’ll forget the details and you’ll forget the time and place, but you’ll never forget how you felt through this stuff.

We went on to deliver a lot of really work at that place, including some really new work that had not been done before. You can get a sense perhaps on that of something about this person.

DH: [0:23:24.0] Curt, I wonder whether we could deal with the issue of conflict. Teams often – particularly if you inherit them, I suspect – come with inbuilt conflict where people have for whatever historical reasons been at loggerheads. Can this insightful leader that we’re talking about…? Is it going to be reasonably easy for them to deal with that conflict and heal that, if you like, using the theories and the methods that KAI suggests?

CF: [0:24:00.9] There certainly is a lot of research and writing about the vulnerable leader and what it means to be vulnerable. I think Rob has a good example of that, but again vulnerability would be independent of KAI. If we were to look at the insightful leader and apply adaption innovation theory to it, we would need to be sure to talk about problem A and problem B has Kirton has defined it.

Problem A is the task at hand. It’s why the group comes together. There’s the focus on problem A by the group. Problem B is probably to find all distractions from problem A. So if we turn the focus on problem B we lack focus on problem A. We know we can only focus on one problem at a time and problem Bs can be anything from politics, lack of resources, lack of time, differences in values, not being able to trust each other starts building into that.

The insightful leader knows that there is only one problem A and we have to focus on problem A. If we can’t get focus on problem A, we start losing our motive and because problem Bs can pop up from here and there, it’s important to maintain focus on problem A. So the goal of the leader is to mitigate problem Bs as they pop up as natural with our diversity that we bring to the team and maintain focus on problem A.

If the reward of solving problem A is greater than all the stress that we have from the team, we’ll be successful in moving forward. If our stresses from problem Bs pop up more and more and cannot be resolved in overcoming problem A, we stop being successful in solving problem A.

DH: [0:25:46.5] And presumably, Rob, problem B – the conflicts within the team – to a certain extent the insightful leader needs to depersonalise those so that they become differences of opinion. Of course, they are differences of opinion, but they’re differences of opinion that can be discussed and hopefully resolved. Presumably that’s an important aspect of it too.

RS: [0:26:06.9] Absolutely, definitely. It’s like the difference between debate and personal conflict. We want debate, we want differences of points of view and we want the members to be able to accept the need for those differences. Whether we agree with each other or not, it’s not personal. We’re trying to walk on the back of our hand, so there’s something there about creating a meaningful common goal that’s important to the people in the team. It’s big, it’s tricky, it’s worthwhile and in a way because people realise all that – they realise if this was simple there wouldn’t be the need for us to be working collaboratively on it. That’s why we need these different points of view.

There’s a fantastic study done a while ago by a woman called Terri Curtsberg who looked at, set up an experiment to get diverse teams generating ideas. She wanted to look at first of all whether the more diverse teams generated more ideas, but also what was the experience like for those people in more diverse teams? The outcome was yes, the more diverse teams – and by the way they used adaption innovation to split people into groups – so the more diverse teams generated more ideas. They were more fluent in their ideas.

However, it didn’t really feel like that to the people in the more diverse teams. First of all, they rated their creativity lower. They didn’t believe they were more fluent. Secondly, they rated the experience of being together as not quite as enjoyable. Because they‘re different, and of course this wasn’t a long term work party, it was only an experiment like a short term research experiment -but in a way we’re more comfortable with people who are like us. So if we bring together for good reasons people who are different, there’s a big onus, isn’t there, on the leader to form, to explain why we need this difference, that we need each other, that you need me and I need you, but also to put in the context of a big important, in Curt’s terms, of adapt innovation terms, problem A -a piece of work that matters.

DH: [0:28:18.9] So Curt, finally, it seems to me that this is about dialogue, it’s about leaders giving people the space to have that dialogue, leading to a greater good. Would that be a fair summary?

CF: [0:28:31.7] Yes. I was just thinking back, when teams aren’t functioning well, people often talk about, “Well, you need to communicate more.” I think from listening to Rob and knowing more about AI theory, it’s also important about what you’re talking about. Communicating our differences is important. Communicating our vulnerabilities is important to moving forward, and an insightful leader can do that well.

DH: [0:28:55.1] You’ve been listening to the KAI Podcast with our special guests, Dr Curt Friedel and Rob Sheffield.

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. Thanks for listening.