Building and Leading Teams Through Conation and the Kolbe Model

“Conation is the executive function of brain, where you manage your actions and allocate your mental energy. Take charge!”
–Kathy Kolbe

As most of you know, I’m a student and practitioner of leading high-performance teams at NASA.  Any time I get the opportunity to add a new tool to my leadership repertoire, I take advantage of it.  Not long ago I encountered a new perspective on how individuals and teams get things done, culminating in an insightful experience.  Here, I’m talking about conation, the Kolbe model, and insights provided by Kathy Kolbe and Joan Koerber-Walker on building and leading high-performance teams.

I first encountered Kathy through an interview as part of Joan’s series on “People Making a Difference”.  I was intrigued by the insights offered by Kathy’s views of conation (the “doing” part of the brain) and how it relates to the cognitive (“thinking”) and affective (“feeling”) parts of the mind.  Yes, Kathy’s theory is that we have not two, but three parts to the mind.  (What I find even more amazing is that some early results of recent brain mapping research is showing some support for the existence of conation as a part of the mind.  Interesting!)

Moreover, my intuition was pointing to a connection to the leadership model I’ve been using for the last few years, centered around alignment, action, and result.  I felt I understood how alignment works in terms of the degree of overlap of individual values with organizational values, purpose, and mission.  Likewise, I felt I understood results in terms of the SMART model: specific, measurable, attainable, rewarding, and time-bound.  However, I had a less clear picture of action.  How does action come to be?  How do we choose to take action, and of what form?   When I read Joan’s interview with Kathy, I wondered: could conation be the well from which we determine our actions?  To explore this for myself, I took the Kolbe A™ Index and from that discovered my own innate talents.  In the Kolbe language, this is one’s M.O., and mine is 6-4-8-2 (yes, that’s the “6482” in my Twitter bio).  I read through the materials on what this meant (an “entrepreneur!”), and with some help from Joan, gained some additional insights; specifically, that my instinct is to lead with an insistence (8) in the third Kolbe Action Mode, “Quick Start” through improvisation, and back it up with a strong accommodation (6) in the first Action Mode, “Fact Finding” through explaining.  Basically, I will juggle rapidly-changing priorities through an experimental approach backed by calculating probabilities.  (I wondered: does Kathy have some kind of pipeline into my head? Holy cow – that’s me to a tee!)  The accommodation (4) in Follow Thru means that I’m naturally drawn to maintaining and modifying systems, and the resistance (2) in Implementor means that my natural knack is for imagination, abstraction, conceptualization, and symbolism.

There was something fundamental here, something that I haven’t gained from Myers Briggs, Strengths Finder, FIRO-B, and DiSC.  It was the sense of “yes, this is who I am” I got from the Kolbe A™ Index, as opposed to “yes, this is who I want to be” that I get from the others.  There is a big difference between the two in my mind.

Moreover, the Kolbe model extends beyond that of the individual – with additional measures, it applies to teams as well.  That definitely got my attention.  Through Joan, we contacted Kathy Kolbe to conduct an assessment of the team I was leading, so that the team members could get the same insights from the Kolbe A™ Index that I got on myself, plus I would get extra insights on how the ensemble of team members combine naturally as a problem-solving team.  Kathy Kolbe came to Houston, along with the company CEO David Kolbe (yes, they are related – he is her son), and conducted a learning and evaluation session of the team.  Joan also graciously attended to help moderate and share her experiences with Kolbe.  Through the assessment, I gained some additional insights into the composition of the team through the identification of which Kolbe Action Modes the team initiates solutions, responds to the situation, and prevents problems.  The insights showed where I as the leader could expend my effort most efficiently to enable the highest degree of performance by the team.  The assessment also indicated where the team had some aspects of “conative cloning”, meaning where the team was replicative instead of complementary in problem-solving approaches.  Kathy provided suggestions on how to address the specific instances of conative cloning on the team, covering actions I should take as the leader, how I might sub-divide the team into smaller units, or bring in additional team members with the missing M.O.s onto the team to provide a better degree of complementary problem solving.

The final point from this tremendously insightful week was an approach to building teams in the first place.  A leader can use the Kolbe model to augment team selection, either by using it to fill in M.O.s missing from the team, or even to build a team from scratch by adding Kolbe assessments to the screening and selection process.

In the months since I first encountered the Kolbe model, I’ve participated in a Kolbe Certification class, have conversed with others putting Kolbe into practice, and have laid plans on how I will add Kolbe to my leadership toolkit when I form a new team later this year.

I encourage you to explore the Kolbe model yourself.  Go to and read the material there.  You can also contact Joan Koerber-Walker through the earlier link, and she can help you as well.  Basically, if you are a leader seeking to build and lead high performance teams, or are attempting to diagnose issues with teams not performing at peak effectiveness, give Kolbe a look.  You may be amazed at the results.

Building and Leading Teams Through Conation and the Kolbe Model