The science of predicting team dynamics

Dr Carl Friedel urges us to look to diversity of thought in our teams to ensure successful problem solving.

In today’s management environment, teams are built of highly intelligent experts, with the greatest intentions of working well together. Sometimes these teams are successful and highly productive, but at other times they can be difficult to maintain. Why is that?

British psychologist, Dr Michael Kirton, originated the Adaption-Innovation Theory  in the 70s, which connects team diversity to team-based problem solving. In short, Kirton discovered that we each have an innate style of solving problems as an aspect of our personality.

We are all either more adaptive or more innovative, regardless of intelligence, learnt skill set, situation, motivation, age, culture, ethnicity, and the many other indicators of creative capacity.

While we can have two individuals of equal intelligence, who are equally motivated, share the same values, and by all appearances look the same, it is still possible they will disagree on how best to solve a problem.

No problem-solving style is better than the other, as both are equally as creative when generating new ideas and solving problems

More adaptive vs. more innovative

When fixing a broken system, policy, or procedure, individuals who are more adaptive tend to have ideas focused on making tweaks to the system, to improve efficiency, and are focused on being precise and thorough with detail.

Whereas the more innovative will likely have ideas focused on challenging the rules – thinking more broadly to alter the current system. No problem-solving style is better than the other, as both are equally as creative when generating new ideas and solving problems.

However, if there is a difference in problem solving styles between members in the group, stress can occur causing a break down in team dynamics. So, what can be done to navigate these differences and close the ‘divide’ to prevent personality clash?

Working together

First, there must be agreement to collaborate. It may sound simple, but if we aren’t able to agree to work together, it is possible there will be competition among team members. Competition may be the result of a team member believing their idea is better, or they deserve more recognition or reward from solving the problem.

While competition can be a motivating force, if it leads to anxiety and unethical behaviour it can be detrimental to effective teamwork and collaboration.


If a team is dysfunctional, there may not be a shared understanding and agreement of the problem needing to be solved. The problem faced by the team is often a unifying force, with shared understanding and passion for addressing the challenge at hand.

Bringing clarity to the team’s aim will help team members recognise how the more adaptive and the more innovative can work together, each doing their part in the shared effort.

Without an understanding of the team member’s problem-solving styles, business leaders may pass judgement on why teams are not working together well, assuming it’s because they have got the wrong people in the room, or the members are not experienced enough to tackle the problem at hand.

As leaders, who will also be either more adaptive or more innovative, they may mistakenly view different problem-solving styles as not being as creative as their own innate preference – making false assumptions that their team is not aligned with the same goal.

Acknowledging who is more adaptive and who is more innovative on the team and approaching this diversity of thought with mutual respect and humility, is critical in managing gaps of problem-solving style.

Once you have established the different styles of problem solving in a group, you can then choose a process that everyone agrees to follow – with the more adaptive needing to consensually agree to it, and the more innovative appreciating it.

KAI was recently used by a large corporation to build a better cultural and organisational understanding – recognising that cognitive diversity plays a key role in how we approach problems and creativity. By understanding the differences in teams, the leaders have driven collaboration by altering how they communicate with employees depending on whether they are more adaptive or more innovative.

For example, to find ways to reduce the costs of an offshore project, they grouped the more innovative members together separately from the more adaptive and allowed both groups to work on ways to address this problem independently.

Both groups were then brought together to synergise and present ideas – with the more adaptive working to focus on ways to improve current processes, and the more innovative thinking of different ways to address the issue. The effort resulted in the group finding a brand-new way to incorporate a new idea into their current system and resolve the problem at hand.

A challenge however is not just in the different styles of problem solving, but in the way individuals may communicate the solution.

Playing devil’s advocate, by indicating that an idea is being brought up for the sake of argument, can help by focusing on the merit of the idea and less on judging the intentions of the person sharing the idea – encouraging an exchange of ideas and a productive discussion to solve the problem together.

With change in our society happening faster than ever before, team leaders not only need to be able to facilitate change in a team, but also recognise that we each have an innate preference to solving problems, either more adaptively, or more innovatively.

By recognising your own and each member’s problem-solving style, teams can better work together knowing the diversity of thought each team member brings to the table.


About the author

Dr Curt Friedel is a KAI practitioner and director of the Center for Cooperative Problem Solving at Virginia Tech.


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