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The Substance of Our Styles PUBLIC ACCESS

One Engineer Will Live for the Rules and Another Will Try to Rewrite Them, But Both Minds Bring Valuable Insights to the Table.

[+] Author Notes

Kathryn Jablo kow is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Pennsylvania State Universi ty. Her research interests include flexible robotic systems. computational dynamics. and engineeri ng creativity.

Mechanical Engineering 129(02), 30-34 (Feb 01, 2007) (7 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2007-FEB-3

Different approaches to problem solving are needed along the way, ranging from those that strengthen and refine the systems recreate to those that shake up those systems and replace them. In problem solving today, diversity is critical to success. According to research and the experience of practitioners, one of the first things on the new need-to-know list is a functional understanding of how the brain solves problems and the key variables that make it work. Two of those key variables are problem solving level and problem-solving style. Michael Creed, president and CEO of McKim & Creed, Pennsylvanian, an engineering firm specializing in the design of environmental infrastructure, is a staunch supporter of Kirton’s Adaption-Innovation theory and its application in engineering management. The article highlights that getting diverse teams to collaborate effectively takes an understanding of their unique styles. The article suggests that the challenge for a leader is to manage the level and style diversity of the team in ways that balance the value of its members’ diversity and keep the ultimate resolution of its goal in mind.

Engineers-like all humans-are problem solvers, and the problems engineers have to solve are getting more complex and more difficult every day. We are responsible for more solutions, delivered at increasing speeds, with growing demands for higher accuracy and a decreasing tolerance for failure. And the stakes continue to rise as corporations (and problems) span the globe.

In the midst of these growing challenges, one thing is clear: The number of problems we each can solve alone is getting smaller. Not only are there more problems than anyone person can handle, but no one person has the brainpower to cover-on his or her own-the wide range of knowledge and expertise that is so often required. It is equally clear that different approaches to problem solving are needed along the way, ranging from those that strengthen and refine the systems we create to those that shake up those systems and replace them. In problem solving today, diversity is critical to success.

To gather all the knowledge we need to solve complex problems, we know that we must collaborate. Working together is no longer optional. Paradoxically, in order to collaborate and solve problems effec tively, we need to know even more-and about different things. Technical savvy is not enough. According to research and the experience of practitioners, one of the first things on the new need-to-know list is a functional understanding of how the brain solves problems and the key variables that make it work.

Two of those key variables are problem solving level and problem solving style. Problem solving level (also called cognitive level) refers to a person's mental resources for solving problems; it's a measure of a person's cognitive capacity, or how much a person knows about different things. This is the area that concerns us when we talk about intelligence or talent, for example, as well as about someone's knowledge, experience, or skill.

Most people have a good understanding of level. We routinely assign projects and design teams based on who knows what and on how well each person performs certain tasks. We reward and promote individuals based on how much they do and how quickly they get it done. All of these forms of level are reasonably easy to measure, which may explain why we depend on them so much for assessing performance and for constructing teams.

But level is only one piece of the puzzle. Problem solving style is equally important, but unfortunately, it is more often misunderstood and mismanaged. Problem solving style (also called cognitive style) is a person's preferred cognitive approach to solving problems. It is the way a person prefers to use his or her cognitive resources when it comes to problem solving.

For engineers and engineering managers, one particularly useful way to view problem solving style is through its relationship to structure. M.J. Kirton, a British occupational psychologist and the author of Adaption-Innovation: In the Context oJ Diversity and Change (Routledge, 2003), has shown that people differ in their innate preferences for structure in problem solving.

Kirton's framework for understanding problem solving is called Adaption-Innovation theory, and it has been applied across many disciplines and cultures over the past 30 years. In general, the more Adaptive a person is, the more structure one prefers when solving problems, with more of that structure established through consensus. The more Innovative a person is, the less structure one prefers when problem solving, and the less one is concerned about reaching consensus first.

An individual's preference falls on a bipolar continuum, with strong Adaption on one end and strong Innovation on the other. This particular dimension of problem solving style is measured using the Kirton Adaption-Innovation (or KAI) Inventory, a highly validated psychometric instrument that does its job neatly and compactly.

Because of their preference for working with more structure, Adaptive problem solvers prefer to approach problems methodically and to seek solutions to problems in tried and true ways. They are often seen as precise, reliable, efficient, and disciplined; they are the masters of detail when it comes to an established system, with a sharp eye toward its enabling features, but sometimes a blind eye toward its limitations.

The value of Adaptive problem solving is clear: It provides' continuity and stability, solving problems through continuous improvement and increased efficiency. Contrary to some popular opinions, Adaptive problem solvers welcome change, particularly when that change results in an improved system that runs more smoothly and efficiently. This kind of change often comes as an outcome of problem solving, and without it, a team (or an organization) will fail-quickly and spectacularly.

In contrast, Innovative problem solvers are liable to think tangentially and to question a problem's definition and core assumptions because of their preference for working with less structure. They prefer to approach problems from unexpected angles, and they may be seen by more Adaptive people as being undisciplined, imprecise, disruptive, and disorganized. They can serve as catalysts to settled groups and are more ready to replace an established system, focusing on its limitations, but often disregarding the weaknesses of the new system they are recommending.

The value of Innovative problem solving is also clear: It supplies radical breaks from tradition when they are necessary, solving problems through restructuring and increased flexibility. Innovative problem solvers often will change a system first, in order to solve problems (at least, as they see it). Over time, a team or an organization without Innovation will also fail, but the path to failure-more likely to be slow and steady-looks different.

Strength in differences: Conflicts can arise in development teams because of the members' different styles of problem solving. If the distractions of style can be overcome, diverse teams often devise better solutions than more homogeneous groups do.

Grahic Jump LocationStrength in differences: Conflicts can arise in development teams because of the members' different styles of problem solving. If the distractions of style can be overcome, diverse teams often devise better solutions than more homogeneous groups do.

Sorting Out Level and Style

In order to understand the situation fully, it's important to realize that problem solving level and problem solving style are independent. In other words, if I know something about your style, it tells me absolutely nothing about your level of ability. Unfortunately, people fioequently misinterpret differences in style as differences in level, and then regard those with different styles as less capable.

As a result, a person who prefers a more methodical and detailed (that is, more Adaptive) approach to problem solving may be ridiculed by someone who prefers to operate more loosely and spontaneously (that is, more Innovatively), and vice versa. Each person tends to brand the other as somehow "unable" or "unwilling" to solve a problem, instead of recognizing their diverse cognitive strategies for what they really are: different tools in a mental toolbox, any (perhaps even all) of which may be needed to help resolve a single complex problem.

Sorting out level and style isn't always easy, because a person may be using coping behavior to perform in ways that differ from his or her preferred style. But with a bit Michael Creed, president and CEO of McKim & Creed, PA, an engineering firm specializing in the design of environmental infrastructure, is a strong supporter of Kirton's Adaption-Innovation theory and its application in engineering management.

Creed observed, "The most vexing problems I have had in my 28 years of business have been people problems and not technical problems. Kirton's Adaption-Innovation theory provides vital new insights for reducing unnecessary conflict on project teams and, consequently, improving project outcomes."

Robert Samuel, a senior information systems architect at Aetna Inc., was recently recognized for his efforts in designing and implementing a new IT solution within the authorization consent process, and he credits Adaption-Innovation theory for helping him succeed.

According to Samuel, "Everyone needs to realize that it's not always the 'out-of-the-box' ideas that have an impact. With cognitively diverse teams, there is an increased opportunity to bring different kinds of creative ideas and products to the community and a company's customer base. These creative implementations often identifY profitable business opportunities, and cognitively diverse teams make them a reality."

Getting diverse teams to collaborate effectively takes an understanding of their different styles. Samuel shared this anecdote with us:

"In the process of understanding the problem at hand, several diagram views of varying detail needed to be developed to help visualize the same problem space. At first, a high-level conceptual diagram that had just a few boxes, some arrows, and select words was developed and used by most of the team. But, then I noticed that several members were not participating in the discussion.

When I asked the non-participative members to contribute, they were frustrated that other team members could make 'leaps of faith' on such little descriptive material in the diagram. 'Where are the facts, the numbers, and problem report details?'

Different approaches, great results

 

Grahic Jump Location 

When it comes to inventors, the contributions of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla demonstrate the value of engineers with different styles

Edison was the more Adaptive of the two men. His practical and methodical nature led him to systematize the process of invention in his Menlo Park laboratory-the first industrial research facility with the aim of continuous technological improvement. "My principal business consists of giving commercial value to the brilliant, but misdirected, ideas of others," Edison once remarked.

Edison was meticulous and painstakingly thorough when it came to design. He tested hundreds of different materials in his search for the perfect filament to use in his incandescent light bulb (including bamboo and sewing thread). Edison's more Adaptive style certainly had its advantages: He is still on record as one of the most prolific (and famous) inventors in U.S. history. Edison held almost 1,100 patents in the United States alone.

Tesla, who was often considered eccentric and Vfas regarded by some as a "mad scientist" in his later years, was less methodical, less concemed with detail, and less practically inclined-at least in the short term. Many of his ideas (like hydropower generators and guided missiles) were considered impossible when he proposed them, and Tesla could not secure funding for their development. Yet some of these designs had great commercial or military value years later, once they had been developed and refined further-a common characteristic of Innovative ideas.

Tesla's more Innovative style was equally advantageous: He had more than 700 patents to his credit and today is widely respected as one of America's greatest electrical engineers.-K.J.

The A and I: Even in their photographs, the contrast is evident between the methodical Thomas Edison and the less predictable Nikola Tesla. Both men, however, were distinguished in the number of patents they held.

"This resulted in team contention on what should and should not be on the final diagram. Thus, Problem B began to distract the team from Problem A. "Realizing that the team consisted of a wide range of cognitive styles, I used technology and a CAD approach of placing layers on the diagram that contained varying levels of details. Using this method, each team member could add or remove layers to accommodate their comfort with the diagram. Thus, the more Adaptive members could view all the layers, and the more Innovative could minimize the layers-leading to a common productive discussion (and minimizing Problem B)."

In the vocabulary of A-I theory, "Problem A" is the original problem that a group has Come together to solve; "Problem B" is the automatically inherited problem of managing differences among team members. Successful teams spend more time and energy on Problem A than on Problem B.

Another interesting bit is that disagreement on Problem A (i.e., different people having different views of the problem) is a form of Problem B. Here is a case in point.

Don Loftin, an IT program senior manager at Lockheed Martin, for example, uses Adaption-Innovation theory to increase team cohesion by making team members aware of the value that diverse styles bring to the team problem solving function, and how to better manage those different styles to reduce conflicts, including conflicts of his own.

Loftin is involved in the deployment of a major initiative that will require a significant amount of cultural change in order to be successful. Loftin began discussions with a colleague about developing a model to guide certain changes to be made in his area of the company. The discussion became argumentative.

According to Loftin, when he analyzed the situation in light of A-I theory, he traced the root of the conflict to differences in understanding of the basic problem to be ,solved. Loftin, who leans toward the Innovative side, expected that management was asking for a broad look at the solution. His colleague, more Adaptive, believed that the senior management team was asking for a refinement of the existing model.

The question was referred back to the senior management team to get a fuller definition of their expectations for a solution. Once Problem A is better defined, teams can work more effectively to develop a solution.

People frequently misinterpret differences in style as differences in level, and then regard those with different styles as less capable.

Loftin explained: "Adaption-Innovation theory is being used to evaluate plans for managing that culture change by looking at those plans in terms of the needs of both more Adaptive individuals and more Innovative individuals."

When first presented with Kirton's work, many people ask: So, given the Adaption-Innovation continuum of problem solving styles, is there one style that's best? The short answer is: in general, no. Every problem solving style has its own advantages and disadvantages in the face of a particular problem, just as different types of knowledge are more or less useful depending on the job at hand. This is especially obvious when the problem is complex, with many shifting parts that must be solved over an extended time.

In general, Adaption has the advantage when the solution to the current problem (or subproblem) can be found within the established system, but it may fail if it hangs on to that system too long. For example: You can reap great benefits by making an existing manufacturing process more and more efficient (an Adaptive solution)- as long as the resulting product is still in demand. Innovation, on the other hand, has the advantage when the solution to the current problem lies outside the established system, but it may fail if it throws that system away too soon. So: Introducing a radically new product (an Innovative solution) can also be very profitable-but only if people are willing to buy it in place of the old one, The trick, of course, is figuring out when to use each kind of approach to achieve your aims overall.

Given the Adaption-Innovation continuum of problem solving, is there one style that's best? The short answer is: 'no.

Likewise, there is no best combination of styles in a problem solving team. Homogeneous teams (that is, teams of individuals with similar styles) may be easier tb manage because the team members get along more readily, but their breadth of problem solving is narrower. They may be able to solve a certain kind of problem very well, but they will be less effective with other types of problems. In contrast, heterogeneous teams (that is, teams of individuals with dissimilar styles) have greater breadth of problem solving style and can solve more kinds of problems well, but they are typically more difficult to manage.

The need for this kind of diversity arises from the nature of structure itself.

Kirton talks about the "paradox of structure," and it applies to every kind of structure you can imaginephysical, conceptual, social, etc. In a nutshell, the paradox is that structure both enables and limits at the same time. In the case of teams, which are a kind of social structure, the same qualities that help a team solve certain problems also limit it in other ways.

In the end, the challenge for a leader is to manage the level and style diversity of the team in ways that balance the value (and cost) of its members' diversity and keep the ultimate resolution of its goal in mind.

To learn more

To find out more about problem solving, Adaption-Innovation theory, the KAI Inventory, or how these principles might be applied in your organization, contact Kathryn Jablokow at Pennsylvania State University (KWL3@psu,edu) or visit M,J. Kirton's Web site at www.kaicentre.com.

Copyright © 2007 by ASME
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