How Calamity Jane was Put in her Place or Why Teams Don’t Always Pull Together

– Josephine McHale

Scene: An open day at which a management consultancy team is introducing its range of training materials. The programme has reached the point where participants are given hands-on experience of a simulation exercise. Workshop leader: “This simulation relates to project planning. Your task is to look at the list of 20 management activities, arranged in random order, and then rank them according to the sequence you would follow in managing the project. Do this individually first. Then after lunch you will have half an hour in groups in which to reach a consensus….”

The Problem

The conventional approach to a consensus-seeking problem is for each participant to reveal to the group the item to which they had allocated their first ranking and for a consensus eventually to emerge out of the different choices. The same procedure is then repeated for subsequent rankings.

On this afternoon, three groups settled down happily to this approach and were soon involved in heated discussion. Not so the fourth. Within this group was one person (we’ll call her Jane) who happened to see things a little differently.

Noticing that the items on the list seemed to fall into groups corresponding to the different stages of project management, she suggested that it might ease the task, and reduce confusion, if these clusters were identified first, with rankings subsequently being assigned to individual items within each cluster.

Her temerity in proposing this was rewarded with immediate resistance, hasty rejection, on the grounds that it would take time away from the task as set, and a strong urging that the conventional approach be adopted. Recognising defeat, she fell in with the group’s preferred way of working, but found that she continued to fall foul of the group just by disagreeing over certain rankings. Not feeling any particular need to get her point of view accepted, she gradually withdrew from the debate, preferring to listen to the various expressions of opinion and their accompanying justifications, finding in this activity a genuine source of interest.

When she next involved herself, she again incurred the displeasure of the group. The discussion had become predictably confused, with much crosstalking, uncertainty over what had been agreed and which item was under discussion. This was clearly a source of anxiety for one group member, who tried to direct the group’s activities towards completing the task.

“But some interesting points are emerging”, protested Jane. “And it’s not a real training session nor have we been given the time normally allocated to this exercise, so does it really matter whether we finish or not?” This was treated as heresy. She was put firmly in her place by the self-appointed group leader who reaffirmed the importance of obeying the rules and then turned his attentions to a determined effort to get the group to do just that.

The outcome was one incomplete task, several group members irked by what they saw as irrelevant interruptions, and Jane bemused by the fact that an arbitrary assignment could assume such importance that a hastily cobbled together rankings was preferable to an exploration of issues arising from the use of such exercises.

The Theory

We have recounted this incident in detail because if affords an excellent example of the annoyances and defensiveness which can emerge when a group of people try to work together as a team even in an unstressed context as a workshop.

We have found such upsets are a common occurrence in groups. The supportiveness and co-operationwhich is suggested by the statement “We work as a team here”, is often marred by the sort of problem that our incident illustrates. But why does it happen?

In running team-building courses we have been looking for ways of predicting and explaining such conflict and to provide people with a framework which helps them to understand and interpret their behaviour. Our previous experience with the Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI for short), devised by Michael Kirton at the Occupational Research Centre, in the UK., suggested that data from this inventory and related personality traits, might give us the information we wanted. Before we refer again to Jane and her experiences, we will first explain what KAI measures (Table 1).

1. Characteristics of adaptors & innovators

Adaptor

  • Safe, reliable, methodical
  • Disciplined and efficient
  • Masters detail
  • Prefers defined problems
  • Rarely challenges the rules; solves probles by use of rule
  • Seeks consensus, values group cohesion
  • Does things better
  • Provides balance when working with innovator

Innovator

  • Thinks in risky, unexpected ways
  • Little respect for past custom – seen as irrelevant
  • Trades off detail for over-view;
  • Questions definition of problem
  • Often challenges the rules; solves probles despite rule
  • Can appear insensitive, even abrasive, to group cohesion
  • Does things differently
  • Provides dynamics for radical change

The theory on which the inventory is based is concerned with differences in the thinking style of individuals in effecting change. So it involves creativity, problem solving and decision making. The inventory locates people on a continuum of style difference, ranging from high Adaptor to high Innovator. Adaptors prefer to solve problems from within a consensually agreed structure, such as a paradigm, a theory, a set of rules, mores: or a scientific system of classification etc.

The Innovator, in contrast, finds greater comfort in a looser structure, of which less of it need be consensually agreed. As a result of this freedom the innovator is likely to throw up more ideas, at least some of which are innovative – that are likely to go to the edges of the rules and beyond. With this risky strategy, more ideas are lost, even laughed out of court, but despite the loss some of the ideas are accepted. Among them will be the occasional one that is spectacularly successful and mould breaking. However, this is often done at a cost of group temper and cohesion. The value of the innovator is undoubted. The disadvantages are obvious, too, as there is always the possibility that no workable radical idea turns up and the rules have been trampled on to no good purpose.
The adaptors’ virtues are equally apparent – except perhaps to high innovators – since their changes are in support of the paradigm and often lead to almost instant improvement. They succeed by using the rule and by “doing better”. Their disadvantage is they may stay with the worn paradigm too long, patching it up with great efficiency when it would be best to dump it. No supermen here, according to Kirton. Each has advantages and disadvantages depending on the ever-changing situation. A team needs a balance in order to solve complex problems that come its way. Regrettably those far apart on Kirton’s scale are at least as likely to quarrel as to combine!

The innovator also seems to the adaptor (or more precisely – the more adaptive) to be very willing to trade immediate efficiency for some longer term payoff (therefore seeming in the short term to be inefficient) and seems unwilling to conform to other peoples’ rules and regulations. An equally high adaptor has the opposite characteristics, wanting to begin by mastering the detail of the problem as given and looking towards as early an efficient payoff as can be got.

That is the theory – or part of it. There remains one addition: the total KAI scores are made up of sub-scores names Sufficiency-Proliferation of Originality, Efficiency and Rule/group Conformity, that are mostly self-explanatory. We can begin to see what this all means in practice by looking again at the incident described at the beginning of this article. We know that Jane has a total KAI score of 120, with 50 on sufficiency of originality, 21 for efficiency and 49 on conformity (see Table 2, for comparison).

2. Jane’s KAI scores compared with other groups

Group Sufficiency of Originality (SO) Style of Efficiency (E)
Style of Conformity (R)

KAI Total
General Population* 40.8 18.8 35.4 95.0
Managers in Innovative Inclined Occupations*

43.7 20.4 37.6 101.7
Jane 50.0 21.0 49.0 120.0
*from KAI Manual

These scores are congruent with her behaviour in the group, her suggestions for doing things a different way, her concern with issues other than those immediately confronting the group (which made her seem inefficient), coupled with her failure to record her own rankings (which would have confirmed the impression of inefficiency), and her disregard for the objectives and rules which the group had accepted for itself.

We can also speculate about what was happening to the group, for the members’ scores were all more adaptive. Users of the inventory have found that problems arise when innovators and adaptors try to work together. At around 20 points difference the problems begin to emerge and persist. Innovators are seen by their more adaptive colleagues as being “abrasive, insensitive and disruptive”. For their part, innovators see adaptors as stuffy and unenterprising and as being too bound by rules and systems which the innovator views as restrictive and ineffectual. Neither party acknowledges the virtues of the other. Our colleague was acting in a typical though not extreme innovator style. The reactions that this provoked were typical of adaptors faced with a threat to their equilibrium.

The incident illustrates the concepts which lie behind KAI and their outcome in practice.

The experiment

For the past two years or so, we have run seminars on making teams more effective. We experimented with KAI as a means of providing the information we wanted. We will describe its application on a management course for senior teachers.

Our team building seminars are built around a three hour group exercise which we devised to provide a microcosm of managerial activity. In our exercise ‘FOCUS’ we form teams of four or five people, each team assuming that they are an independent production company tendering to produce a regular television news programme.

Their task is to submit an outline of one sample programme indicating the nature of items and the costs involved, and including a linking script. Instructions are issued explaining the constraints they have to work under – the idiosyncrasies of the producer, the need to use information purchased from the ‘news agency’ and the deadlines they have to meet, the first being the submission of their ‘company name’.

On the course we are describing, we made three teams of five people each, allocating them on the basis of their KAI scores without telling them. Our aim was to create groups which would approach the task in different ways, illustrating facets of team working. KAI scores for the three companies are compared in Figure 3.

Group A: ‘Friday Focus’. Inspection of KAI scores led to the expectation that they would keep to our guidelines and would produce a sound though straightforward proposal, reflecting the fact that none of them was markedly innovative. We also predicted that the overall efficiency and conformity of the group would ensure that they met the objectives and obeyed our rules.

Group B: ‘Newsco’. Using KAI scores, we deliberately included in this team three highly innovative people, hoping that this would illustrate the problems which so often arise in such mixed teams.

Group C: ‘Pandora Production’. KAI scores show this team has the most adaptive average score of the three, with their average SO score significantly more adaptive than that of Group B. (The Mann Whitney ‘U’ Test showed that the probability of this occurring by chance was less than one in twenty.) With their scores on E showing them to be the most adaptively efficient group, we thought that they would work happily together producing a sound, middle of the road, carefully worked out proposal which would lack mould breaking imagination. Our one uncertainty lay in the fate of the single innovator amongst four adaptors.

As we had hoped, the groups were indeed very different in their style of working and in the nature of their various tenders. KAI scores provided useful insights into why things happened as they did.

Nowhere were these general comments more applicable than with ‘Newsco’. Their tender was an admirably imaginative and fully scripted (we forgave them the near illegibility), but they grossly overspent and failed to meet their deadlines.

As anticipated, the three innovators could not work together. The catalyst for the group tensions was the participant with the very high KAI score of 134. She drove one of her innovative colleagues to retire periodically from the group to give himself time to cool down, and became involved in bitter arguments with the third, while she ignored the

disarray around her and single-mindedly pursued her self-appointed task of writing the script. We could not have wished for a more dramatic illustration of the problems which highly innovative people create amongst themselves.

‘Pandora Productions’ operated in the way which we had predicted. Their tender was neatly produced, their budget was modest and their deadlines were met. The only missing feature was the anticipated lack of innovative style.

We were interested to find that the sole innovator in this team was not rejected by his more adaptive colleagues. Instead, he emerged as a Chairman which enabled the other team members to work calmly and co-operatively towards their goal.

‘Friday Focus’ produced their tender on time, having kept well within their budgets and met each deadline. The context, though, was not noticeably unoriginal and had not made full use of all the resources that had been available. Instead of the anticipated conflict over leadership, the group fragmented with each person working independently of the others which led to a lack of structure and absence of an overall theme in their submission.

Only one member adopted a different role which in fact tallied very closely with his KAI score. Being adaptive on originality, very efficient but also relatively highly (innovatively) non-conforming, he decided that contributing to the proposal was not his forte. Instead, he undertook to check the costings, consult the ‘producer’ and negotiate with the ‘news agency’ for material for the programme. This gave full rein to his adaptive efficiency while enabling him to distance himself from the group in a way which did not upset them.

The conclusion

In the end, to what extent were we able to provide a framework which enabled participants to interpret what happened in their teams?

It was here that KAI proved particularly helpful to us in describing, predicting and explaining what happened, and judging by their reactions when given KAI-based feedback – sudden understanding and illumination mixed with some rueful self recognition – participants were equally impressed. Their positive response finally convinced us that the inventory provided the framework we had been looking for.

Since this course, KAI has become an essential part of our professional toolkit, and continues to prove its worth in our assessment and development activities with individuals and teams alike. We would hesitate to work without it.

© Josephine McHale,

Hamelin Occupational Psychology 1995