Posted: 22 Mar. 2015 5 min. read

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?





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

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Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Research Lead | Deloitte LLP

Dr. Suz is a social-personality psychologist and a leading practitioner of Deloitte’s Business Chemistry, which she uses to guide clients as they explore how their work is shaped by the mix of individuals who make up a team. Previously serving in Deloitte’s Talent organization, since 2014 she’s been coaching leaders and teams in creating cultures that enable each member to thrive and make their best contribution. Along with her Deloitte Greenhouse colleague Kim Christfort, Suzanne co-authored the book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships as well as a Harvard Business Review cover feature on the same topic. She also leads the Deloitte Greenhouse research program focused on Business Chemistry and is the primary author of the Business Chemistry blog. An “unapologetic introvert” and Business Chemistry Guardian-Dreamer, you will never-the-less often find her in front of a room, a camera, or a podcast microphone speaking about Business Chemistry. Suzanne is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate with an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a doctorate in Social-Personality Psychology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She has lectured at Rutgers Business School and several colleges in the CUNY system, and before joining Deloitte in 2009, she gained experience in the health care and consulting fields. A mom of two teenagers, she maintains her native Minnesota roots and currently resides in New Jersey, where she volunteers for several local organizations with a focus on hunger relief.