Maru Inplacement

How your problem solving style affects your leadership out of lockdown

19 June 2020

Story by
Sarah Rice


As we transition back to a ‘new normal’, leadership relies heavily upon how well teams can continue to work together to solve problems. There are psychometric measures, of course, which can predict the inter-dynamics of team members, and provide insight to why some teams are more successful than others in solving problems together.

But how can HR and leaders use such tools to lead their teams successfully through change?

While employers are most interested in their leaders’ ability to maintain profit during this international pandemic, teams are mainly interested in their leader’s ability to lead. During a crisis like COVID-19 many consider leadership as a capacity to inspire, show personal consideration, and challenge personnel to overcome obstacles.

These aspects of transformational leadership are important, however, many have learned that despite one’s most valiant efforts to transform their teams, many may still be dysfunctional at worst, and ineffective in producing desired results at best. Perhaps this is because the issue is not a gap in motivation or competence, but a gap in problem-solving style.

‘Problem A’ vs ‘Problem B’

We each have a measurable and innate preferred style to solving problems and manage change, which can be used to predict team dynamics in the context of problem-based leadership.

For example, if we define Problem A as the task for the team to solve, Problem Bs are the problems occurring within the group deterring progress on Problem A. There are many types of Problem Bs, especially during this era of COVID-19, such as lack of resources or time, poor communication, mismanaged expectations, political gaming, personality conflicts, etc.

However, one type of Problem B is a gap in problem-solving style, meaning there is a disagreement on how best to solve the problem due to stylistically perceiving the problem.

Business leaders are often able to navigate the waters of many Problem Bs, but most are unaware of how a sizeable gap in problem-solving style among team members or leaders may impede progress in solving Problem A. Teams will look to the leader for guidance if Problem Bs get out of hand and overcome the focus on Problem A, so today’s leaders must know more about the different problem solving styles – adaption and innovation.

Problem-Solving Style Defined

A person’s problem-solving style can be measured with the KAI (Kirton’s Adaption-innovation Inventory) and indicates if one may be more adaptive or more innovative on a continuum. For example, if a specific system isn’t working, the more adaptive is likely to tweak the system for improved efficiency, while the more innovative will likely swap out the system for something else. The more adaptive person is more prone to inside-the-box thinking, the more innovative person thinks of ideas both inside and outside the box, often because they’re unaware of there even being a box.

Neither problem-solving style is better than the other. Over 40 years of published research shows that problem-solving style is independent of intelligence, motivation, learned-skillsets, ethnicity, culture, and many indicators of ability. A team member may be equally passionate, equally intelligent, and equally skilled as a fellow team member, but prefers to manage change very differently.

Nor can one be trained to be more innovative or more adaptive. As with being right or left-handed, we each have a preference.

It is no wonder problem-solving style may create an incredible Problem B in a well-functioning team. One team member wants to improve the system while the other wants to swap it out. The leader’s role is to maintain a diversity of problem-solving styles among teams to effectively solve problems together, with mutual respect, recognising that solving Problem A sometimes requires adaption and sometimes, innovation.

Moving Forward

COVID-19 has upended standard operating procedures in many ways, and will continue to do so as businesses reopen. The more innovative leaders will have swapped out standard operating procedures too soon, considering them as too limiting to the rapidly changing environment, while not seeing the need for consistency. Equally, the more adaptive leaders will have held on to standard operating procedures for too long, considering the consistency as necessary, but not seeing the need for radicle change in places to meet the pressing demands of the pandemic.

HR and leaders should be instrumental in setting up a change team to reengage the business in this new normal – a small, self-managed team that meets weekly, and has the ability to make decisions quickly and represent the diversity of the organisation.

Of course, among this diversity, should be a balance of more adaptive and more innovative individuals, with mutual respect and humility.  If not, teams may never get past Problem A but be held back by disputes and Problem Bs, hampering any chance of an employer successfully leading their organisation out of lockdown.

Dr. Curtis Friedel is Director of the Center for Cooperative Problem Solving at Virginia Tech.




Latest News

Register for Membership Today

Become a part of our exclusive members network of HR heroes who are taking on today’s biggest challenges in the workforce.