Innovation Teams and Stone Walls:

They have more in common than you might think

By Charles W. Prather, Ph.D.

The technical professional today will more often than not find himself or herself a member of at least one, and usually several cross-functional teams. Cross-functional teams get things done, largely because of their common goal and because every critical function is represented on the team with the power to act. Indeed, when team functionality is good, they deliver impressive results. However, when one or more team members are behaving dysfunctionally as regards the team, team performance suffers significantly.

Consider a strong stone wall. It is made of individual stones, no two alike, each doing its job in the wall, and mortar, the “glue” holding the stones in place relative to each other. Without the stones or without the mortar the wall would be far less strong, if, indeed, there were a wall at all. When we compare a cross-functional team to a strong stone wall, each stone represents the team members, and the mortar represents the behavior each team member displays toward teamwork. If individual stones are themselves unsuited for their positions in the wall, or lack individual strength, then there will be a point of weakness. If one or more members behave in self-serving ways that negatively impact teamwork there will be other major areas of weakness in the wall.

How can we build strong teams, or resuscitate dysfunctional teams with this model? The answer lies in making sure that (1) the members (“stones”) are working on tasks they feel uniquely suited to accomplish, and that (2) supportive team behavior (“mortar”) is exhibited by every member, and especially the leadership.

Looking at the Stones
Let us look at the individual member first. Aside from well-known personal qualifications such as education, area of specialty, degree of experience, and the like, a crucial aspect that is almost never examined is the individual’s problem-solving style. We will now examine the concept of problem-solving style and its relation to task assignment, and interpersonal team dynamics.

Problem-Solving – the core skill
All of us are paid to solve problems. Think about the core skills needed to do your job well, and you will find problem-solving at the top of the list. As we solve problems we call upon our own creativity as we (1) define the right problem, (2) generate ideas to solve it, and (3) develop plans to carry out the selected idea. How can we improve our problem-solving skills? By first realizing that there are strikingly different styles of problem-solving, and then learning how and when to use the right style for the right problem. If problem-solving is ice cream, then the style of problem-solving is the flavoring. And like ice cream, different people prefer different flavors.

The concept of creativity styles (or “flavours” of problem-solving) was originally developed in the early 1970s by Dr. Michael Kirtonˡ, who developed the Adaption/Innovation theory. The theory states there is a continuum of styles of problem-solving (e.g. creativity), which lie between the two extremes he labels as “adaptive” and “innovative”. It further states that people are quite naturally oriented toward some point along this continuum.  

If you are oriented to solve problems using adaptive creativity, you seek to make the existing system better. If you are oriented to use innovative creativity, you seek to change the existing system. His KAI Inventory, a short 32-item questionnaire based on this theory measures your preferred problem-solving style.

In adaptive problem-solving, people seek to make the existing system better.
People who naturally prefer this style will be found doing things that make the existing business run smoothly and efficiently. They will assure that commitments are met, will assure accuracy of shipments and invoices, will seek to increase the efficiency and reduce the cost of operations for which they are responsible. These people bring high, immediate value to any business, and everybody knows it. In short, your business would quickly fail without people whose natural preference is to make the existing system BETTER. The DuPont Company employs about 125,000 people worldwide and has sales of some $40 billion. How could DuPont have experienced such growth without accurate and timely product shipments and invoices? The answer may well be high level research aimed particularly at improvement.

In innovative problem-solving, people seek to make the existing system different
People who naturally prefer this style will be found challenging the existing system. They are agents of change and work at changing the way things get done, and the very nature of the business. They might well change a fundamental manufacturing process or bring new technologies to bear to enter new markets. They help assure an enduring business because they help it remain current and responsive to changing needs and opportunities. These people bring high long-term value to any business, but it is more difficult to measure in the short term. The DuPont Company started in 1802 manufacturing black powder. How successful would DuPont be today if it had not diversified into plastics, synthetic fibers, chemicals, electronics, and a myriad of other products?

How might we use this knowledge of “flavours” or styles of problem-solving to improve team performance? The answer lies in understanding that team problems call for a variety of problem-solving styles, and that all team members bring their own preferred style which can add unique value. Members who have an adaptive style will naturally gravitate to taking care of the details of work: getting permits, clearances, and keeping detailed notebook records. Members who have an innovative style will naturally gravitate to trying out new ideas and concepts, and redesigning products and services. Good leaders know how to assign people to the tasks they prefer. For example, suppose you have a problem that requires a solution that must fit within existing regulations, or must be compatible with the existing system, and it must be readily accepted by the organization. This might mean finding away to speed processing of orders or invoices, or of making sure the right product gets shipped to the right customer. Problems of this sort usually call for making the existing system better, and the members most likely to do an excellent job are those who prefer adaptive problem-solving and who are the agents of stability.

On the other hand, suppose your product line is growing old, competitors have outflanked you with new products that meet needs even your customers did not know they had, and you have to respond. Problems of this sort usually call for changing the existing system, that is, going outside the paradigm of the current business. The members most likely to do an excellent job here are those who prefer innovative problem-solving, who are agents of change and enjoy the challenge of “breaking out of the box”. In this example, it would have been your competitor who had already done this before it was faced with an immediate competitive threat.

Jobs can be characterized by the style of problem-solving needed.
People do their best when they are in jobs that require the problem-solving style they themselves prefer to use. Intuitively we all know this, but the Adaption/Innovation theory gives us a clear framework for discussion and understanding, and for finding jobs that best fit our preferred problem-solving style. We all know people who hate their jobs and find every excuse to get out of work. In this author’s experience, many times it can be traced to a very great mismatch between the problem-solving style demanded by the job, and that preferred by the person. The greater the mismatch, the more unproductive energy the person must expend just to cope with the job demands, leaving less energy available to do the job. The result is high stress, burnout, and low job satisfaction.

Teams are more effective when a range of problem-solving styles is represented.
Every team is composed of members who prefer different problem-solving styles, and yours will be a more effective, stronger team to the degree that the different styles of all its members are used and valued. In a team with which this author consulted, one lone individual strongly preferred adaptive problem-solving while all other members strongly preferred the innovative style. In a letter to this author, that individual said,

“After going through the session, our team experienced a drastic improvement in teamwork, due simply to the fact that the KAI theory helped us understand how our problem-solving styles were different.”
… DuPont Engineer

He was later promoted to group leader at a new location, and one of his first acts was to have his new group understand the Adaption/Innovation theory so they could get started productively.

ˡ Kirton, M.J. (1976) “Adaptors and Innovators: A description and Measure” Journal of Applied Psychology, 61:622-62

© C. W. Prather 1994
Note: Dr Charles Prather was a manager at DuPont before running his own consulting company.