Welcome to the KAI podcast series ‘Building Better Teams and Great Leaders.’ KAI or the Kirton Adaption Innovation Inventory is one of the world’s foremost measures for problem solving, team work and creativity. It’s been in use for over 40 years and is supported by a wide range of academic research from around the world. In these podcasts we aim to shine the light on the issues and problems facing all teams as they strive to be the best version of themselves.

In today’s episode, we’re going to explore how KAI is linked to well-being and good mental health, especially in the workplace. We’ll also look at what this has meant in COVID times.

Hosted by Dave Harries, who is joined by Mel Dowdy, a hugely experienced clinical psychologist with over 40 years of consulting practice behind him. He’s also a business coach and consultant, all of which he does through his company Delphy Initiatives, which focuses on leadership development and diversity programmes to advance the quality of life for organisations and their communities.

Samia Shehadeh is a coaching and business psychologist with over 30 years’ experience helping individuals and organisations. She is an NLP Master practitioner, and a practitioner in applied neuroscience, and has worked with many blue-chip organisations and Government departments to develop and enact change programmes, and leadership and culture development.

Transcript - click here

DH: Dave Harries
MD: Mel Dowdy
SS: Samia Shehadeh

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 one of the world’s foremost measures for problem solving, team work and creativity. It’s been in use for over 40 years and is supported by a wide range of academic research from around the world. In these podcasts we aim to shine the light on the issues and problems facing all teams as they strive to be the best version of themselves.

In today’s episode, we’re going to explore how KAI is linked to well-being and good mental health, especially in the workplace. We’ll also look at what this has meant in COVID times.

My name is Dave Harries, and joining me to discuss these issues are two very distinguished KAI practitioners. Mel Dowdy is a hugely experienced clinical psychologist with over 40 years of consulting practice behind him. He’s also a business coach and consultant, all of which he does through his company Delphy Initiatives, which focuses on leadership development and diversity programmes to advance the quality of life for organisations and their communities.

Samia Shehadeh is a coaching and business psychologist with over 30 years’ experience helping individuals and organisations. She is an NLP Master practitioner, and a practitioner in applied neuroscience, and has worked with many blue-chip organisations and Government departments to develop and enact change programmes, and leadership and culture development.

Thank you both very much for joining me today. I wonder if we could start by briefly explaining again the basic tenets of KAI theory for any listeners who may be less familiar with it. Mel, could you remind me of the inventory scale, how that works and what it means?

MD: [0:01:43.6] First of all, David, thank you so much for hosting this. The KAI is unique among the various measures of creativity and problem solving that we can find in almost all of the tools that are being used by leadership coaches. There’s a real difference between style and capacity or level, and what KAI does is to measure how we actually go about solving problems. Our level of capacity may differ between us because of IQ, because of training, education, etc, but our style tends to be very consistent over time.

So the KAI is an inventory that gives you a look into how you as a person actually enter into the process of solving a problem, or creating something new. If we understand that well, then we have the opportunity to use our strength to its utmost and to respect the differences of others in their style, their approach.

MH: [0:02:47.8] Samia, the scale, the inventory, that we are measured on, on the face of it looks fairly simple; it’s just numbers, and you’re somewhere on this numbered scale. Explain to me, if you could, where you appear on the scale and what that really means in simple terms.

SS: [0:03:04.0] Okay. Well, essentially the scale is from 32 to 160 points, and people are on that scale in a bell-shaped curve essentially, where the majority – something like 67 per cent I believe, fit into the middle of the bell shaped curve and then the rest sit on either side.

And as Mel said, this is not about capability. It’s about preferred style. There’s neither right nor wrong. One is neither better nor worse than the other. Everyone, at whatever point they are in the scale, has qualities that are needed and wanted.

DH: [0:03:40.8] And if you’re in the lower numbers of that scale, then I think I’m right in thinking you have a more Adaptive problem-solving style. And if you’re up in the higher numbers, you tend towards a more Innovative problem-solving style. Is that right, Mel?

MD: [0:03:56.1] Absolutely. When solving a problem, even trying to define the problem, the Adapter is much more likely to want structure and to target the ideas to look at whatever system is being changed, as the context and the structure to keep and to try to improve that system and the way it performs. People who are on the Adaptive side when they’re generating solutions, they like really clear directions. They like well-defined problems, they generate fewer and develop safer ideas. They want to be precise, and fairly methodological and disciplined, in their approach. They rarely challenge the rules and they use rules to solve problems. They seek consensus and they value group cohesion.

SS: [0:04:43.3] Yes, Mel, I agree with the great size of the Adapters. We’ve also got at the other end of the scale, the Innovators. Those people will complement very much the Adapters in many ways, and what they will demonstrate will be things like they actually prefer to do things differently. They’ll consider novelty exciting. They are happy to push beyond boundaries and paradigms. And they do occasionally or in fact often underestimate the concept of challenging consensus, and don’t always consider consensus. They’re risk taking, they see rules and norms as flexible.

So again, here it’s about pushing boundaries, pushing the rules. The rules are there to be broken essentially. They might create systems that appear different, but could also be unstable. They may appear to be undisciplined in approaching tasks from unexpected perspectives, and they don’t wish and want to be constrained by structures. They often question assumptions, and they have a lot of value in changing the rules when rules need to be changed, or in finding solutions where things need to be very different to the way they are within the current structure.

DH: [0:06:03.4] Samia, the use of the word ‘Innovation,’ we have to be a bit careful with here, don’t we, because obviously sometimes in its general use in everyday life, Innovators can be highly regarded and all that sort of thing – and there’s a danger, isn’t there, that that perception could carry over into this scale? And you think, ‘Oh, well, if you’re in the Innovative end of the spectrum, somehow that’s a better thing to be.’ But that’s not right, is it?

SS: [0:06:27.7] No, absolutely not, especially when using the KAI as well, the concept really is about the fact that everyone can be Innovative, and everyone could be Innovative in accordance with their preferred style. So, you could be Innovative within the constraints of a paradigm and actually change things to be better within those constraints, or you could be a blue sky thinker, and be Innovative much more on the blue sky thinking as such. And both will have their value and everywhere in between as well depending on the needs of the thinking and depending on the needs of the Innovation.

DH: [0:07:07.4] And finally, Mel, before we move on to talk about well-being and mental health, could you remind us please of the issue of Problem A versus Problem B – because that’s quite fundamental to a lot of what KAI talks about, I think, isn’t it?

MD: [0:07:18.8] Yeah, the moment we want to solve a problem or join with someone in creativity, we’re moving into trying to focus what is the problem that we want to solve, and we make an agreement about doing that. We call that Problem A, but the moment the other person is invited into that process, we have Problem B – namely the diversity or the difference that might exist between myself and the other person.

Think of a team of four, five, six, seven, eight people. The amount of diversity that might exist within that team can stretch all across that scale as many essences, and so Problem B is managing the diversity of differences in the way, and the how, people are going to approach that problem.

DH: [0:08:06.1] So Samia, let’s talk about KAI in terms of well-being now. Well-being and mental health are big subjects these days, particularly with what we’ve all been through in the last 15,16 months with the pandemic and so on. So what does KAI have to say in broad terms about well-being, and what do you think it can do to help us?

SS: [0:08:29.8] That’s a very interesting question actually. KAI looks to understand people’s preferred styles of thinking, solving issues and problems, and of dealing with change. And depending on where one is on the scale, people find it easier or more difficult to adapt to change, but it also depends on the scale of the change. So you can imagine with the pandemic as it has been, there have been huge amounts of change for most people, and where they are on a scale will have them have different feelings towards those huge changes.

Generally speaking, the Innovators on this huge scale change are perhaps dealing with it more easily because they’re more used to big paradigm shifts, big shifting of boundaries, and their way of coping. Their ways of coping will be different, and here again this has something to do with coping strategies.

The KAI discusses that quite clearly. So when people are going beyond their preferred style, it’s not to say they can’t deal with things. It means that they will probably have to tap into some resources inside of themselves and different strategies that they use, to cope with things that are not within their norm of style of thinking and being.

DH: [0:09:50.1] So Mel, given what Samia has just said about coping mechanisms and that sort of thing, do you think that a lot of the stress that we all feel on a day to day basis at work, or indeed in our personal lives, can be put down to our problem solving styles, and people we work with or communicate with having different styles?

MD: [0:10:13.5] Absolutely. We’re not only talking about styles that you see in behaviour, but when someone else is speaking, you must listen. So if it’s a news broadcaster, or whatever, CBC or Dr Fauci, whoever is speaking, they may be speaking from a very different style. And if the style is very different from yours, it’s harder to hear, it’s harder to understand, and it creates stress.

So we’re trying to answer what do I believe, or what not to do, to stay safe. And so first of all keep in mind that just the conversation about what the pandemic is, how it’s progressing, what’s happening with vaccinations, all of that information is communicated in different styles. And so hearing it and using that information can cause stress. Then you turn on to the team mill meeting, or you get on the line with a colleague, and you bring that stress into the conversation. Then as you listen to the other person, and you’re trying to find the Problem B, you’re trying to find a way to talk about a problem, and how to approach that, that makes sense to both of you, the stress continues. So it’s one building on the other, building on the other.

So yes, and the problem that we’re trying to deal with – let’s say, I’ve got a distribution issue in my company. How are we going to distribute what we deliver as products? New ways of changing that delivery system. It becomes very important in the context of the pandemic to find a solution that does not put more people at risk.

And so again, what styles we bring to understanding the nature of the pandemic, and what are the limits of what we can do within it, that by itself creates a lot of stress.

DH: [0:12:15.0] Samia, that’s fascinating what Mel has just said, isn’t it, about the communication styles – whether it’s people in the public eye, or whether it’s your colleagues at work, or indeed your family and friends for that matter. So it’s not just necessarily the solving of a given problem. It’s the way you communicate the solving of that problem that can be problematic and is identified by KAI.

SS: [0:12:40.7] Absolutely right. The language that people use, the pace of speech that people use, the tonality that people use, will all differ. And then the amount of detail that is put into a conversation will differ. So where perhaps the people who are on the Adaptive side of the scale might speak more slowly, might speak in a more detailed manner, might be more consensus-driven and asking other people for their views. If you have an Innovator, a person who is higher on the scale on the Innovation side listening into that, they’ll want to say, ‘Come on, let’s just get on with the conversation.’ Can we just move this on people? Yes, I’ve got it. I’ve got it.’ Or ‘I think this way. Yes, we understand that now, don’t we?’

So that can be very different. The pace, the tone, the movements, the feelings are very different. And so understanding those differences, realising that there is benefit in all ways of communicating, can actually help us to be more patient with each other’s differences.

DH: [0:13:46.6] Mel, as I mentioned in the introduction, you’ve got a great deal of experience helping people – not just with KAI, but with your clinical psychology and your consulting and so on. I wonder, could you give me some examples perhaps of how you have used this knowledge to help people to reduce that stress to increase their well-being in their teams?

MD: [0:14:08.6] Just last week I was doing an offsite team building with a group of people who are responsible for leading a fairly large educational system – high school kids. They were trying to solve the basic problem of what are we going to do about masking? Okay, we’ve got to create a policy around masking. What do we ask of our staff? What do we ask of our vendors? What have we got to ask of our students, our teachers?

The way in which the problem was being addressed, it took them at least a good 10 to 15 minutes to actually define the problem, what is the problem we’re up against? The Adapters in the room were quite quick to say, ‘Well, it’s quite clear. This is how we do things here. These are the ways we’ve always done them here. Everyone is used to doing it this way, so why don’t we try to improve that?’ Whereas there were two Innovators in the room, and they were immediately saying, ‘But this is not like any other problem we’ve ever solved. Why should we recreate the same sort of disconnects that people have with the current policies? Let’s just start afresh, and write it from the start as if the previous policies or the previous ways of doing things did not exist?’

It took them a while to agree. ‘Well, no, the approach is going to be what?’ How we’re going to bring those things together.’ Back to the comment that Samia was just making about the patience it takes to really take the time, move slowly, don’t become irritated with each other because you’re talking very different language, and find that common ground around which the problem can be addressed.

That means that the Innovators in this case really needed to borrow some of the style of the Adapters. They needed to cope with that situation by actually borrowing some of those behaviours for at least a while. And when we do that, that can feel stressful because we’re reaching outside of our preferred way of approaching the problem.

DH: [0:16:23.8] So given that, given that it can feel stressful, if you understand where you sit on that scale between Innovator and Adapter, does that reduce the stress – just the knowledge that you are one or the other, or you tend to one or the other, and you’re dealing with people who are different?

SS: [0:16:43.8] Oh, I would absolutely agree. I think the beauty of having KAI and knowing your score, and actually working as a team knowing each other’s scores, means that everyone understands that there are differences. Everyone understands what are these differences. It provides a common language, a common reference point that you can then discuss, and it opens up discussions by the mere fact that you can actually say, ‘Oh, I’m such and such on the scale. This is how I operate. This is how I feel’ and they go, ‘Right.’ That’s where the ways of working together are a little bit fraught. ‘Okay, well now we know that, what are we going to do so we can work better together? And it provides us with ideas, solutions, language, and a better way of communicating together so as to reduce the strain, reduce the impatience, reduce the friction that can go on between disparate ways of being.

DH: [0:17:39.7] And Samia, when you explain these sorts of things to your clients, are they credulous? Do they sort of say, ‘Oh, yeah, that makes sense,’ or is there pushback?

SS: [0:17:49.7] No, I think once people have actually understood KAI and their scoring, they have really embraced it actually and understood, had some insights about themselves, and understood insights about others that they work with, their family members, and also insights about how they are working and why things work well with some and not so well with others. To know it’s a brilliant tool to really understand and value the differences. and work with the differences.

DH: [0:18:20.8] And Mel, in the example you just gave, once they knew where they were on that scale, did that help? Did that bring people together and make them work more effectively?

MD: [0:18:30.4] Absolutely. We did a session a number of months ago, in which we introduced the KAI. Everyone had taken the inventory, and we were able to actually see in the room what the range of differences were. So people knew, for example, that the leader of the team tended to be much more on the Innovative side. They also knew among the Adaptors who actually was occupying much more of the middle range in the whole distribution. We call those people who are in the intermediate position ‘bridgers.’ They really are in a flexible position to be able to bridge the differences between those who are more Innovative and those who are more Adaptive, and bring about some insight into where the common ground might exist. So the training in advance had helped them.

They had also been able to affirm to each other things such as – ‘When I’m up against this type of problem, I know that so and so on the team is much more likely to be helpful in helping me solve that problem because they will approach it from a different point of view.’ And so the amount of respect that was already shared and developed in this particular team really did help them to take their time and be patient with the differences of approach and that makes it a lot less stressful.

Also, it keeps the motivation higher because I enjoy working with you and with your differences rather than considering you to be the problem I’m trying to solve.

DH: [0:20:09.4] And Samia, if we’re talking, as we are about well-being, mental health and those sorts of things, clearly there are a lot of teams within organisations that don’t perhaps function as well as they should. So how do you start that process of bringing a team together, and improving the well- being outcomes as it were, as well as the outcomes of the purpose of the team at the same time?

SS: [0:20:36.2] It comes back to what Mel was saying about Problem A and Problem B.

So you’ve got Problem A, which is the task at hand, and then Problem B, which is actually working together as a team and ensuring that you are able to deliver on the task at hand, and spend your time doing that mostly, rather than worrying about how the team is functioning. So working with teams, what we would do is obviously there’s this confidentiality aspect of things, people would be filling in the inventory, and receiving their scores. And from there, you would want people to be sharing that. There would be an element of confidentiality and keeping that within the team unless it was wanting to be shared otherwise. People would then understand each other’s place on the scale, and understand the differences between each other, and that would then allow them to have conversations, to discuss in pairs.

The ideal would be to then put them in groups – one where they are at similar ends of the scales, where they can understand each other’s cognitive styles, they speak together about their cognitive styles and really focus themselves on who they are, what they are, what their styles are, and understand that. And then after that, you would have conversations between the two different sets of people, and split them up, and help them to understand each other better, what works for them, what doesn’t work for them, what irritations do they have from working with the other’s style? All of that allows for an increased understanding of each other, and also an understanding of what actually is good about the others that complements – because actually, as a team, we need to complement each other.

So as an example, you might be somebody with a brilliant idea on how to solve a problem, but you won’t necessarily be the one to implement it. Well, where does the idea go then? It gets lost. You need the people who are more willing to then implement it, to stay within the structures and get the thing going, and actually get it done. And so that’s where our differences are great and necessary, and come together to make things happen.

DH: [0:22:49.5] So actually, what you’re saying is, the differences are really important. They’re helpful, you need them in a team, but you’ve also got to understand them, and appreciate them, and appreciate the other people who have those different problem solving skills.

So Mel, I wonder – talking about wellbeing and mental health and those sorts of things, when you come to a client, to a team that you’re helping, is your overriding thing that you want to make them happier as well as obviously being able to solve the problems that they’re paid to solve? I think in my introduction I did say that you helped quality of life for organisations and their community. So I guess that is about happiness, isn’t it?

MD: Well, one of the things that makes us happy, really feel a certain sense of joy, is to be visible, not to be made invisible. For someone to actually see us, and to recognise that we bring value, and that our story – whatever that story may be – is an important part of being understood. And how different my story may be from yours, if you take the time to listen and to understand my story, and my perspective, and you make me visible, there is a quality that quite literally is physiological. We can measure it with hormones and heart rate and so many other ways, but they will tell you people actually begin to feel viscerally happier, lighter. So there’s a pleasure in being understood, number one.

Number two, when two people realise there is something that despite their differences, there’s something that we can do, that really feels like we did it. At the end of the day there is a sense of collaboration. There is a sense of shared responsibility and shared accountability. There is ownership for what we are going to actually produce as a team, as leadership to our company, to our organisation. That sense of ‘we-ness’ we find a more and more highly enjoyable, pleasurable experience, and teams will need opportunities to step back after the problem solving has been done and implementation is working, to sit back and celebrate. ‘Oh, we did it! We pulled this off together, and we did it in the context of a wide range of differences that we experience.’

DH: [0:25:20.1] So Samia, I guess from what Mel’s saying, and from what you’ve been saying as well, it’s about respect. It’s about understanding, and it’s about being recognised as Mel just said.

SS: [0:25:31.4] Oh, absolutely. I think MeI’s made a brilliant point that it is much more when we feel all of those, and acknowledged. I think acknowledgment is incredibly important as well. When we’re acknowledging our differences, acknowledging what our values are with our preferred styles, and what we bring, when we understand it to be valuable, it does add to our happiness, it adds to our self-esteem, and to our mental well-being. Absolutely, Dave.

DH: [0:26:01.1] Samia, I know that one of your passions, and one of the things that you talk about a lot in your work, is sustainability. I’d be really keen before we finish to get an opinion from both of you about how that fits in with well-being and mental health, because obviously we’re all concerned about the planet. There’s clearly a climate crisis going on around us, and clearly that’s going to have effects on our well-being and our mental health. It’s bound to. So how does all that fit in, do you think?

SS: [0:26:29.5] I’ve got two aspects to this. There’s the mental health side, and then there’s the actual solution driven focus for sustainability and the climate emergency that we’re in.

On the mental health side, I think very much like with the pandemic, different people will adapt differently to the stressors that are being faced, and different people will take it on differently. The Adapters will – I think we mentioned this earlier on – will be dealing with it within a paradigm shift that is shifting extremely largely. And that will be perhaps more difficult to cope with. And they will want to find ways of helping themselves and helping others who have those preferred styles to deal and cope with those big changes that are coming.

The Innovators might be thinking, ‘Right, well, what can I do to solve these worldwide global issues? How am I going to get involved in all of this.?’ And although they will still have their anxieties to do with it, they are perhaps more willing to consider the paradigm shift. So that would be on the mental health side.

I think on the actual solving the world’s issues side, it’s very interesting that you’ve got Adaption side and Innovation, because there’s very much two concepts that work so well hand in hand in solving problems for the world as it stands. You’ve got the one such as the electric car. It’s an Innovation, but it’s still an Innovation within a paradigm of a vehicle on the road. It takes us from A to B and it needs fuel – whether it’s at the petrol station, or whether it’s plugging into the electric socket, it’s still needing to be fuelled up. So that’s a solution, which you could say is more on the Adaptation with Innovation on the technology side, or you’ve got huge variations in new technologies that are there to solve problems in ways that we’ve never solved them before.

And so it’s a really interesting parallel between the KAI and the scales, and actually the solutions that are needed across all of that level of the scale, all of those types of scale, to solve the world’s problems. I think we need all sorts of different styles to help us in this quest to make the world a better place for everyone and a safer place to live.

DH: [0:28:55.9] And Mel, the last word to you then. Solving the world’s problems and KAI, is there a connection?

MD: [0:29:03.6] One of the things that I would want to see happen is that we understand sustainability doesn’t exist simply across the globe. It has to exist inside of particular communities, and those particular communities have a way of life.

As an Innovator, I find myself leaning much more towards the Adaptive side and saying, ‘Let’s just keep in mind the way of life of a particular community, and that has its own structure, its own rhythm, its own way of being in the world.’ And so the way that community is going to look at a particular technology is going to be different than perhaps another community. So we have to find a way to deliver the solutions that take into account the particular way of life of a community. At the same time introduce them to Innovations that will be consistent with their values, with the rhythm of the life that they live.

I think of how often I turn to the members of my little community here in Richmond. We have a wonderful connection through the internet. Every now and then I will interrupt one of the emails and say, ‘You live only three doors down from me. I’ll be there in five minutes.’ It’s trying to break out of the technology in order to connect more with them, because they’re my neighbours and I want them to experience that. So we have to find a way to use technology to solve our problems, but also not let it displace our sense of the particular community and way of life that we’re used to living.

DH: [0:30:46.3] Well, thank you both very much. It’s been an absolutely fascinating discussion.

You’ve been listening to the KAI podcast with our special guests, Mel Dowdy and Samia Shehadeh. If you found the discussion interesting, you can find out more about the KAI system and its world beating team development potential at www.kaicentre.com. In the meantime, please subscribe and share this podcast.

Thanks for listening.