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Legal Talent & Inclusion

Practice Innovations: Adapt, innovate or both? Leading & leveraging cognitive diversity

Anne E. Collier  Professional Certified Coach / CEO of Arudia

· 6 minute read

Anne E. Collier  Professional Certified Coach / CEO of Arudia

· 6 minute read

Leaders of legal organizations who take care to understand the cognitive diversity of their teams can leverage their unique talents to the benefit of all

Have you ever wondered why a colleague, friend, or family member seems to approach life so differently? They are either overly structured, or not at all. Either way, the difference seems to get in the way… or does it?

It may, but a difference in approach can also be the origin of exceptional service. Harnessing differences in approaches require leaders to recognize the value of these differences — of cognitive diversity — and to create a culture in which different approaches are valued, not quashed.

What is cognitive diversity? Quite simply, cognitive diversity describes the fact that people think differently, that they are creative differently, and that they solve problems differently. Intuitively, we know that. Dr. Michael J. Kirton, a renowned British psychologist, provided the world with a practical explanation of these differences in the form of his Adaption-Innovation Theory and Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory, the latter of which measures how a person prefers to solve problems.

Under the theory, Adaptors are highly organized and structured, preferring to solve problems by figuring out how to win within the system that’s already in place. Innovators, on the other hand, are more fluid and boundary-free, often solving problems by changing (or bucking) the structure, system, or conventional wisdom. It’s not that a person tries to be one or the other; rather, preferred style is innate. It’s how a person lives life, solving problems along the way. Whether one is an Adaptor or Innovator is determined by the strength of the preference for structure. Most people are somewhere in the middle.

Teams thrive when they make the most of diverse thinking and approaches; they provide better, more creative, and effective service. The challenge is that people with different creativity styles can annoy each other. The key is to maximize the energy spent on Problem A — providing service to clients — and minimize the energy spent dealing with Problem B — the friction that can be triggered by the differences in team members’ styles.

A typical example of Problem B can occur when discussing how to resolve a client matter. The more Adaptive members of the team suggest tried-and-true techniques and commence the planning, setting out timelines and task lists. They start devising a very granular, detailed, and structured plan. They want to plan so that they can get started. The more Innovative team members, on the other hand, begin brainstorming completely new approaches — pinballing ideas that lead to more ideas. Some ideas are so out there, of course, that even the Innovators laugh and dismiss them almost as soon as they’re conceived. Energy and enthusiasm abound as the number of ideas mount. Innovators are eager to solve the client’s problem elegantly and without the tedium of overly detailed planning.

The Problem B of it all is that both the Adaptors and Innovators may judge the other group to be wasting time, producing annoyance on both sides. Most of clients’ problems clients are truly complex problems that require solutions that fuse Adaptive and Innovative approaches. The real cost, therefore, is the team’s failure to harness the brilliant bits and pieces of both Adaptive ideas and Innovative ideas necessary to solve these complex problems.

Gen. George S. Patton once said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” While he is correct, the absence of new ideas from a team could be the result of a cognitively-diverse team member or two withholding their ideas out of fear of being too out there. Leaders need to ask themselves whether they are harnessing the range of cognitive diversity on their teams. If they aren’t, these leaders may be failing their clients as well as team members.

8 ways to minimize Problem B and maximize creativity

Great leaders create cultures in which cognitively diverse approaches are understood, valued, and prized. Here are ways that you, as a leader, can do so:

      1. Understand differences — Tap into your own leadership insight to understand colleagues’ creativity styles. Recognize that team members’ wildly different approach to problems are why you have a great team. Know that Adaptors will see the mess in the pattern and may whine about what doesn’t fit. The Innovators will see the pattern in the mess, possibly stressing others with their seemingly casual approach to what isn’t working. They are not being nitpicky or haphazard, respectively, just different.
      2. Demonstrate appreciation — As the leader, you have the most impact on culture. You set the tone for appreciation and respect. Support the sharing of ideas, even if those ideas seem ridiculous. You never know what contributes to a winning strategy.
      3. Take a coach approach — Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions to foster colleagues’ best thinking. You may think you know the answer, but taking the time to engage more junior colleagues invests in their professional development and confidence. And, you never know who has the answer or what you might learn.
      4. Componentize complex problems — With your newfound understanding of Adaption-Innovative Theory, turn complex problems into a series of component problems. Divide your team into Adaptors and Innovators to get initial traction on the problem by allowing them to work with colleagues with similar creativity styles. Then turn them loose on the component problems.
      5. Add a disrupter — After the Adaptive and Innovative teams have gotten traction on a solution, swap a team member from each team. The role of this disruptor is to contribute his or her unique thinking style to the solution-finding process. The quality of the team’s ideas will skyrocket.
      6. Bring the full team together — The next step is for each team to present ideas to the full group. Encourage curiosity with questions that exhibit excitement.
      7. Manage the inclinations of Adaptors and Innovators with a staged problem-solving process — Following a process harnesses and organizes everyone’s best thinking while amplifying engagement and improving results. First, establish the focus of the meeting, which is the topic, goal, and takeaway. This focuses everyone on the same outcome and avoids meeting drift. Second, brainstorm options. You may notice Adaptors driving towards planning too soon. Innovators may want to stay in brainstorm mode too long. Third, plan the action. You may notice Innovators becoming bored with Adaptors’ detailed planning. You may want to create sub-teams to plan project segments offline. Fourth, identify necessary resources and obstacles, including a strategy to address these obstacles. Spending time here is essential to garnering the perspectives of both Adaptors and Innovators on what’s necessary for success. Fifth, review and commit to who will do what, by when. This last step solidifies the plan and avoids miscommunication.
      8. Address concerns with curiosity — Even if annoying, and especially if cognitively different, approach all concerns with curiosity. Encouraging Adaptors and Innovators to raise concerns will make for better results by avoiding missteps.

Your leadership is the single most important factor impacting your team’s culture. Thus, by adopting the above advice, you can deliver more exceptional results as you amplify inclusion across your teams.

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