22 May 2018

Innovation would be easy if people thought alike: understanding cognitive diversity and its application to solving the challenges facing defence forces

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Innovation would be easy if people thought alike: understanding cognitive diversity and its application to solving the challenges facing defence forces

Ed Bernacki

In Australia there is a festival that focuses on ‘dangerous’ ideas.

The organizers of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas says these types of ideas question assumptions about the way we live, and demand that we recognise the potential for social change, and challenge us to act.

Here is a dangerous idea. It starts with a question: Do people think alike? We have 40 years of research to show a measurable diversity in the way people think, solve problems, and deal with change. If so, why is it hard to find examples of how this knowledge shapes our policies and programs? I believe we design our solutions, tools, policies (and pretty much everything else) as if all people think alike.

So what’s the dangerous idea? 

What if we design our organisations, policies, rules, and strategies on the fact that people do not think alike? What if we use the research on these cognitive differences to create new models to recognise and leverage these differences?

– We would stop making people wrong for thinking in the style most comfortable to them.

– We would design systems that actually work for all people, not just some people.

– We would recognise these differences and use as an expertise.

– We would match people to the challenges best suited to their style of thinking; cognitive ‘discrimination’ would seem normal and ideal.

Cognitive style has been explored by many academics.

Dr Michael Kirton studied the problems facing senior executive teams and how they made decisions for major change.  While he found many weaknesses in processes, he also noticed people seemed unaware of how their style of thinking impacted (or biased) their options for solving major challenges.  This led to an extensive study of cognitive differences and what became a well-tested and used theory of adaption-innovation.

Dr M Kirton created the Adaption–Innovation Theory as a continuum between two extremes in thinking style based on the need people have for structure. This is a normal distribution, with two-thirds of people falling between these extremes. (Kirton was very careful to provide full proofs of all assumptions. These are widely published in academic journals). The following are some characteristics of these styles at the extremes.

Adaptive style of thinkers

  • Adaptive thinkers tend to accept the problems as defined.
  • Early resolution of problems, limiting disruption, and immediate increased efficiency are important to them.
  • They challenge rules rarely and cautiously when assured of strong support and problem solving within consensus.
  • They are sensitive to people, maintain group cohesion, and cooperation.
  • Adaptors prefer to generate a few relevant and acceptable solutions aimed at doing things better. These solutions are relatively easier to implement.

Innovative style of thinkers

  • Innovators tend to reject the generally accepted perception of problems and redefine them. Their view of the problem may be hard to get across.
  • They seem less concerned with immediate efficiency, looking to possible long-term gains.
  • They often challenge rules. They may have little respect for past approaches.
  • They may appear insensitive to people when solving problems, so they often threaten group cohesion and cooperation.
  • Innovators generally produce many ideas; some may not appear relevant to others. Such ideas often result in doing things differently.

Knowing that people can be differentiated by their preferences for thinking, solving problems and dealing with change, how can this insight be used?

An interesting experiment was raised in workshop on cognitive diversity.

A participant from the US Army questioned…would a team of highly adaptive thinkers or a team of highly innovative thinkers see a terrorist threat faster?

Would these predictable differences in how people use data, link observations, and create insights to solve problems, make a difference in finding threats?

It is a fascinating question.  Experiments have considered much less important challenges. It is an experiment that is well worth doing.

Why is this a dangerous idea?  

Look around society. Look at our policies, rules, and laws. The implicit assumption underpinning virtually everything is that all people think alike.

Kirton wrote of the importance of recognizing this difference.

“Our problems have become so complex, and the penalty for not solving them so high, that we need to study the problem solver and the problems we need to solve.”

Most innovation tools practice focuses on the problems we want to solve.

We cannot ignore the problem solvers.

The diversity in the way people think is demonstrated by the obvious differences in the way people solve problems, make decisions and deal with change. These differences are predictable and measurable based on the degree of structure needed by individuals to comfortably solve the challenges they face.

Ed Bernacki, the Idea Factory, used the Kirton Adaption-Innovation assessment with 4000 public servants in Canada, including groups at Communication Security Establishment. He also presented on this theme at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Washington. 

Dr Kirton main book is ‘Adaption-Innovation in the Context of Diversity & Change’. 

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