This above all: to thine own self be true

January 10, 2012

It is very important to have a clear picture of your starting point, particularly when solving complex problems, but it is activity in which we underinvest, particularly in strategy generation. But while we are waiting for a home-grown Complex-domain diagnostic, there are other tools which can give us actionable insight, and provide a triangulation point so the journey forward can begin.

When I start a strategy project I usually work with the senior team to establish a clear (coherent and cohesive?) picture of the current external and internal business environments. I employ a number of tools including narrative research and, for probing the senior team, the Kirton Adaptor-Innovator (KAI) theory and supporting instrument.

For the past 15 years or so I have had an academic and a practitioner interest in the concept of problem-solving leadership. My work has been heavily influenced by Dr Michael Kirton, whose Adaptor-Innovator theory (KAI) has resonated with a large number of clients around the world, but only in recent months have I established a connection between problem-solving leadership, and a complex adaptive systems approach to strategy generation emerged.

The KAI Theory is founded on the assumption that all people solve problems and are creative. The theory sharply distinguishes between level and style of creativity, problem solving and decision making, and is concerned only with style. Both potential and evident capacity aside the theory states that people are different in cognitive style in which they are creative, solve problems and make decisions. These style differences lie on a normally distributed continuum, ranging from high adaption to high innovation. The key to the distinction is that the relatively more adaptive prefer their problems to be associated with more structure, and more of this structure to be consensually agreed than do the relatively more innovative. The relatively more innovative are comfortable solving problems with less structure and are less concerned that the structure be consensually agreed than are the relatively more adaptive.

Those scoring as more adaptive (the terms adaptive and innovative are relative), as measured by the Kirton Adaption Innovation Inventory (KAI), approach problems within the given terms of reference, theories, policies, precedents and paradigms and strive to provide “better” solutions (e.g. continuous process improvement). By contrast those more innovative tend to detach the problem from the way it is customarily perceived and, working from there, are liable to produce less expected solutions that are seen as being “different” (e.g. reengineering). Styles of creativity produce different patterns of behaviour. All styles are absolutely essential to deal successfully with the wide range of problems faced by individuals and groups, over time.

It appears then that problem-solving style is a pattern of behaviour exhibited consistently, but not uniformly, over time. Displayed behaviour is context dependent but the underlying preferred style is stable. Those who have to demonstrate a non-preferred style for long periods often report symptoms of chronic stress. Those who spend the majority of the time using the preferred problem-solving style and only occasionally spending short bursts of time elsewhere on the style spectrum rarely exhibit these symptoms. This has implications for the nature of the strategy the organisation can generate and implement successfully.

As extreme example, an organisation that is relatively innovative is more predisposed to generate novel products and investigate new markets. If this is what their strategy calls for, they increase their likelihood of success. Conversely, their odd of success are diminished if the organisational basis for customer value generation is based on strategy focussed on high levels of cost discipline and tightly controlled business processes. Alternatively, a relatively more adaptive organisation is more predisposed to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of its current business, and would prefer its innovation approach to be more incremental.

That is not to say, of course, that neither of these organisations is unable deliver a strategy that is quite divergent from its current state, but both should be aware that delivery comes at a cost. The greater the shift from the organisational predisposition, the greater the cost in time, resources and communication in order to deliver effectively and efficiently. Metaphorically, you will be asking a typical NFL offensive lineman to now run a sub-three hour marathon, while still maintaining the physique and skill based to execute the current competence.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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