Engineering Styles

The number of problems we each can solve alone is getting smaller. Not only are there more problems than any one person can handle, but no one person has the brainpower to cover—on his or her own—the wide range of knowledge and expertise that is so often required. It is equally clear that different approaches to problem solving are needed along the way, ranging from those that strengthen and refine the systems we create to those that shake up those systems and replace them.

To gather all the knowledge we need to solve complex problems, we know that we must collaborate. Paradoxically, in order to collaborate and solve problems effectively, we need to know even more—and about different things.

Level and Style

Two key variables are problem solving level and problem solving style. Problem solving level (also called cognitive level) refers to a person's mental resources for solving problems; it's a measure of a person's cognitive capacity, or how much a person knows about different things. This is the area that concerns us when we talk about intelligence or talent, for example, as well as about someone's knowledge, experience, or skill.

Most people have a good understanding of level. We routinely assign projects and design teams based on who knows what and on how well each person performs certain tasks. We reward and promote individuals based on how much they do and how quickly they get it done. All of these forms of level are reasonably easy to measure, which may explain why we depend on them so much for assessing performance and for constructing teams.

But level is only one piece of the puzzle. Problem solving style is equally important, but unfortunately, it is more often misunderstood and mismanaged. Problem solving style (also called cognitive style) is a person's preferred cognitive approach to solving problems. It is the way a person prefers to use his or her cognitive resources when it comes to problem solving.

For engineers and engineering managers, one particularly useful way to view problem solving style is through its relationship to structure. In general, the more adaptive a person is, the more structure one prefers when solving problems. The more innovative a person is, the less structure one prefers when problem solving, and the less one is concerned about reaching consensus first.

The value of Adaptive problem solving is clear: It provides continuity and stability. In contrast, Innovative problem solvers are liable to think tangentially and to question a problem's definition and core assumptions because of their preference for working with less structure.

The value of innovative problem solving is also clear, supplying radical breaks from tradition when they are necessary and solving problems through restructuring and increased flexibility. Innovative problem solvers often will change a system first, in order to solve challenges. Over time, a team or an organization without Innovation will also fail, but the path to failure looks different.

Sorting Out Level and Style

In order to understand the situation fully, it's important to realize that problem solving level and problem solving style are independent. Sorting out level and style isn't always easy, because a person may be using coping behavior to perform in ways that differ from his or her preferred style.

When first presented with Kirton's work, many people ask: So, given the Adaption-Innovation continuum of problem solving styles, is there one style that's best? The short answer is: in general, no. Every problem solving style has its own advantages and disadvantages in the face of a particular problem.

In general, adaption has the advantage when the solution to the current problem (or subproblem) can be found within the established system, but it may fail if it hangs on to that system too long.

Likewise, there is no best combination of styles in a problem solving team. Teams of individuals with similar styles may be easier to manage because the team members get along more readily, but their breadth of problem solving is narrower. They may be able to solve a certain kind of problem very well, but they will be less effective with other types of problems. In contrast, teams with dissimilar style have a wider array of problem solving style and, therefore, can solve more kinds of problems well. Still, they are typically more difficult to manage.

The need for this kind of diversity arises from the nature of structure itself. In the end, the challenge for a leader is to manage the level and style diversity of the team in ways that balance the value and cost of its members' diversity and keep the ultimate resolution of its goal in mind.

[Adapted from “The Substance of Our Styles,” by Kathryn Jablokow, for Mechanical Engineering, February 2007.]

Every problem solving style has its own advantages and disadvantages in the face of a particular problem.

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