Michael Chuchmuch is senior leadership development advisor for strategy and change at Chevron, an American multinational energy corporation. Views are the author's own.
Forty-five years of global academic research have found that each of us has a preferred cognitive creative style when it comes to solving problems and developing ideas.
We're either more adaptive, preferring to tweak current systems to make them bigger and better, or we're more innovative, introducing different ideas that contest the current system to resolve a problem.
Innovators are more likely to be rule breakers, gathering inspiration outside the norm and doing things "differently." They see risk as necessary, and generating multiple ideas, currently doable or not, as simply stepping stones to change. The more adaptive type, on the other hand, likes to make things "better" by pursuing fewer yet more pragmatic ideas to make improvements within the current structures.
No one style is better than the other; the magic of ideas really happens when the two creative styles come together, something Chevron has discovered.
For example, as a business committed to a lower-carbon future, we focus on three areas of continuous improvement: lowering our carbon intensity, increasing our own use of renewables and offsets and investing in low-carbon technologies for commercial solutions.
Even though we employ some of the most talented people in the industry and partner with some of the most brilliant engineers and scientists, using the Adaption-Innovation Theory and its KAI-associated psychometric instrument means we understand that each team member will have a different approach and idea regarding how they go about achieving success in these three areas.
By understanding cognitive creative styles, our leaders can consciously make room for consideration of many ideas that span from the more adaptive approach, like enhancing our current technologies so they're more aligned with the three focus areas, to the more innovative, cutting-edge thinking around technologies and possible solutions that are true "out-of-the-box" game-changers.
Being knowledgeable of how "adaptive creatives" and "innovative creatives" think and pursue problem-solving gives leaders and team members the understanding and discipline to truly listen to everyone's ideas without passing judgment based on their own cognitive biases or unconsciously projecting their own cognitive styles onto the idea.
In addition, knowingly combining adaptive and innovative creatives on teams typically generates greater value as the ideas produced are considered not only unconventional and exciting, but also more doable and deliverable within current systems.
You can recognize this behavior when one team member poses a truly avant-garde idea and another team member states, "Let's think how we can make that work within our current organizational structures."
A blend of styles is best
You may not get the full potential value-added creativity if the team is too heavily weighted towards one style or another. This is why team makeup has a big impact on what teams are doing and their approach to creating new value.
For example, on one of our offshore major capital projects, I was asked to help the project team come up with new ideas to reduce the weight of the structure as well as cost of the build. I remember the project management director telling me that they had considered "everything" to address these issues but were being further challenged by leadership to "go deeper" in finding potential new solutions. Applying KAI was a great step as cognitive style was not something the team was familiar with.
We had the engineering team complete the KAI assessment and, based on results, split them into adaptive and innovative sub-teams. These teams were provided with ideation tools reflective of their styles and asked to create new ideas to address the issues of weight and cost through their own cognitive lens. The teams worked this challenge for the better part of a day and then came together to present their ideas to each other.
As we predicted, the adaptive engineers focused their ideas on how we could make what we are doing now more effective and efficient and considered how doable each was given our current work structures. The innovative team challenged the definition of the problem and considered potential alternatives to design, footprint, materials being used and even protocol around standard equipment being housed on the platform. What we had was a set of very practical — as well as unique and extraordinary — ideas, each with different levels of feasibility. But the magic happened when we looked at synthesizing the ideas.
The two teams then came together with their different ideas to form new ways to address the challenge. The experience was fantastic; both teams came to appreciate how each other's cognitive style and approach to problem-solving could be combined and leveraged for a higher value-adding solution.
Ultimately, we were able to introduce adaptive and innovative thinking into our front-end engineering design work that did indeed reduce both weight and cost of the project. Because of that experience, those engineers who were involved, and who now have moved to other projects or new leadership positions, ask to do similar workshops to address new challenges based on cognitive style.
When the team members are the same creative style
I recall one experience I had with a general manager who was frustrated with a team he had tasked with developing a new technology strategy to address how we could extend the production life of a reservoir.
Some of his "smartest technology experts" had been engaged to draft the new strategy, but what they delivered was simply the current strategy — only worded differently. In fact, after numerous interactions and several different versions, we discovered that the team had tried to meet the General Manager's expectations by rewording the current strategy on the company's public website.
It was soon discovered through the KAI that all team members were at the extreme end of the continuum in terms of their adaptive creative style scores. They were all brilliant, creative people, who were masters at technology scoping and development — but within a specific frame.
Not only was developing a "blue-sky" type of strategy that challenged the current company approach, norms and frameworks, outside of their comfort zone, but it turned out they all hated the task of trying.
I helped the general manager by identifying people on his larger team who were innovative-type creatives and had them assigned to the strategy team. This resulted in a forward-thinking strategy that really pushed the boundaries to help the company capture a magnitude level of value. But along with the new strategy, the combined team also delivered a detailed five-year shaping plan, including essential milestones and links to current supporting technologies, internal research data and a comprehensive list of then-current external university and national lab research.
So, understanding of cognitive style is important for leaders. However, so too is understanding that reliance on a single style can be a limiter to success, whether the team is more adaptive or more innovative.
Yes, there is a great deal of creative power behind each cognitive style as it is focused on the natural areas of application — but that power and value is greatly magnified when the two styles are harnessed together.