Pioneers vs. Guardians: The Right Balance for Problem Solving?

Pioneers vs. Guardians: The Right Balance for Problem Solving?

Last time you needed a really creative solution to a thorny problem, where did you go for help? Did you seek out someone who was more imaginative or more pragmatic? Someone more drawn to brainstorming or to structured process? If you chose the imaginative brain-stormer that was a reasonable choice–many think of Pioneers first when they have difficult problems to solve. But next time think about adding a more pragmatic, process-oriented Guardian to the mix. Let me tell you why.

You might be familiar with the power of cognitive diversity, but perhaps you are less clear its practical applications, so let me explain. Noted Social Psychologist Graham Wallas says the creative process involves four stages: 1) Problem Definition; 2) Incubation; 3) Illumination; and 4) Verification.1

Problem Definition is a critical stage in which creativity is key. Taking a wide view of the problem can open our minds to a range of possible solutions. Pioneers are often naturals at this stage, as well as the next. Incubation involves brainstorming such possible solutions. You simply need imagination, nonlinear thinking, and an exploratory approach—all in the purview of Pioneers. Illumination is the climax of the incubation period. This is when the “a-ha moment” happens, and all the pieces fall into place. This is another area at which Pioneers are likely to excel.

If you’re keeping score, that’s Pioneers: 3; Guardians: 0. So why would you add Guardians to the mix? Of course, Guardians can certainly manage any of Wallas’ four stages (we’re all flexible!). But there’s the final stage of creative problem-solving to consider. Verification involves rigorously testing the validity of a new idea. Many creative types might be tempted to skip this step, being so excited to begin innovating, but this could be a mistake.

Why? During the creative process, it’s easy to fall victim to confirmation bias — a tendency to seek information that confirms what we already believe. In this case, it would lead us to embrace only the information that suggests our new idea is a good one, and in fact, the best one.2

Searching for disconfirming evidence is the most effective way to test a new idea. And this is where Guardians shine. Guardians are pragmatic, and tend to be good at asking the right kinds of questions to help prioritize solutions and challenge the confirmation bias. Which ideas have the greatest chance to succeed? Do the potential benefits outweigh the costs? What resources and conditions would be required to implement the idea? Are these reasonable? How intractable are any barriers to implementation?

These question can feel like a buzzkill to the creative process. Timing is everything. Don’t ask such questions too early in the process or you risk shutting down innovation. But once you’ve brainstormed possible ideas, exploring them critically is vital in the problem-solving and innovation process. After all, wouldn’t you rather kick the tires a bit on that new idea before you invest time, money, and other resources on a road test?

What characteristics do you find most valuable in a problem-solver?

Dr. Suz

Suzanne Vickberg, PhD (aka Dr. Suz)
Dr. Suz is the LCC’s very own social-personality psychologist, which means she studies how people’s thoughts, behaviors and preferences are influenced by both who they are and the situations they’re in. She uses Business Chemistry to help teams explore how the mix of perspectives brought by their individual members influences their work together. Follow her on Twitter @DrSuzBizChem

1 Wallas, G. (1926). The Art of Thought. Jonathan Cape.
2 Bazerman, M. H. & Moore, D. A. (2012). Judgment in Managerial Decision-making. John Wiley & Sons.

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11 thoughts on “Pioneers vs. Guardians: The Right Balance for Problem Solving?

  1. I’m curious about the old guidance that people hire people like themselves. If the Guardian is an opposite of the Pioneer, how can each feel compelled to hire/work with the other? I’ll admit I know I need the Guardian to accomplish my tactics, but I’m always drawn to the people like myself. How do you help the opposites in business attract to improve the team dynamic?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Great idea for a future post. Its natural to want to work with those who are a lot like you–its comfortable, and sometimes that’s fine. But knowing that we benefit from diverse perspectives, one thing we can all do is spend time thinking and talking about the value that each type brings. We do this when we work with teams in a Business Chemistry lab, to remind everyone about why its worth it to go through the effort of working through the challenges that diversity can pose. I also find that just mentioning the differences in our types and perspectives helps bridge the gap when two people who are very different try to work together. I’m curious what others think…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I think it’s great to have a variety of both approaches – as a Guardian, I love a structured approach to problem-solving – to step through potential solutions and identify what works and what doesn’t. However, there’s HUGE benefit in tapping into the creative juices of Pioneers while working to identify potential options, then giving them a whirl to see what may work best.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. What about the Integrator/Driver roles in these phases of problem solving? Integrators might help bring an empathetic lens or more contextual lens that helps the group define the problem or develop a solution that is more customer-focused, as well as helping drive the group to consensus in verification.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Another asset an Integrator may bring to a team assembled for problem solving is their ability to connect ideas. They can take the out-of-the-box bold idea from the Pioneers and the practical-tried-and-true approach from the Guardians and make it digestible for both groups. They have the ability to blend multiple ideas into one equally brilliant final product!

      Liked by 2 people

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