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Adapter or Innovator?

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21st May 2004
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According to Dr Michael Kirton's Inventory, we can all be divided into two groups - those who are more adaptive and those who are more innovative. Rob Sheffield looks at how you decide who's who and shows how KAI can help in the workplace.

Those of us working in learning and development are deluged with claims made for questionnaires and psychometric test instruments.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve noted the beginnings of cynicism from managers who’ve been through a raft of assessment centres, development centres, in-house and external courses, all of which use their own, or off-the-shelf personality measures.

Kirton’s Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI) is registered with the British Psychological Society on their list of approved ‘Level B’ personality measures.

It provides a framework and inventory for diagnosing an individual’s preferred types of change and measures individual thinking styles when solving problems.

The theory: adapter or innovator?
According to Kirton’s research, we are more or less adaptive or innovative than others, depending on those with which we work.

The more adaptive:
* Choose a smaller number of novel ideas that are more immediately relevant, sound, safe, well-chosen and, therefore, useful. These tend to be adaptive solutions that lead to improvements in the current ideas, methods, practices, policy, and structure. These ideas seem so fitting that they are more easily acceptable to others.
* Define the problem more tightly and carefully. They seem to want an early resolution of the problem, limited disruption and immediately increased efficiency.
* Will note precedent, search more methodically for information and present data in more orderly ways.
* Prefer more group conformity to ensure cohesion and collaboration in problem-solving. They use rules to help add structure and agreement to what the group is doing.
* Are more likely to modify existing rules in cautious, piecemeal fashion, but achieve great changes at a more manageable pace.
* However, they are more likely to try to improve a failing system, when what’s needed is something new.

The more innovative:
* Produce a large number of ideas spontaneously. Some will be adaptive and would improve the current approach; some are innovative and would require a new way of working. (Innovators don’t really know the boundary between these two.) They often have problems in choosing among the ideas they generate – find it hard to prioritise. To the more adaptive, these ideas may seem riskier, harder to accept, and therefore more open to attack if they fail.
* Reject the generally accepted view of a problem and define it in a broader way that crosses boundaries.
* Are less meticulous and thorough in gathering data. They appear less obviously efficient, but their style is more likely to produce the ‘different’ idea that will introduce something completely new when needed.
* Have less regard for rules, consensus, tradition and cohesion and are more likely to solve problems by bending or breaking the rules.
* Bring about challenging, unexpected change swiftly at the expense of current order within the group.
* But they are more likely to want to change the existing approach too soon, when it is solving the problem perfectly well.

KAI in practice 1: Working with students
In a series of simulation exercises with MBA students, I split the groups into the most innovative, most adaptive and others with a more balanced range.

Each group is given the same case study – that of a fictitious organisation with some clear problems of strategy, leadership, management, morale, and using the talents of their people.

Each group was told that they were consultants pitching for work. They had to make a presentation to the “board” - composed of another group with a wide range of KAI scores.

The board would decide to which group it would award the work and had three criteria for the decision:

1. Which team produced the ideas most likely to introduce something new and fresh to the marketplace?
2. Which team produced the ideas most likely to work in practice and make a difference?
3. Which team do you trust to deliver what they promised?

Each time, the more innovative groups produce ideas that promise something new. Their definition of the problem is often hard to understand but is always novel.

The more adaptive get the vote for the safe-bet, practicable-looking, ideas. They define the problem in terms taking off the brief they’ve been given.

Interestingly, the board often seems to give the fictional future work to the team most like them in KAI terms.

KAI in practice 2: Working in business

I worked with an e-business team of a professional services organisation that had been given the brief to “be creative, and challenge how we do things”.

What this meant in practice was, of course, a mystery.

Each group member completed the KAI, and we spent two half-day workshops understanding what was going on.

It turned out that the group was more innovative than adaptive – not surprising, given that the work challenged the way things were currently done.

In effect team members were internal consultants, meeting potential clients who owned current business services, and discussing ways of using e-business.

Too often they agreed to help, but found delivery difficult.

The group realised they needed to develop some criteria for making decisions. They devised a filtering process to help them define the particular projects they’d agree to deliver.

They also realised they needed to set up internal systems and structures, and planned to use the more adaptive team members for this.

This mirrors what I’ve seen elsewhere – it’s easier to allocate tasks differently across willing team members than it is to ask people to change their adaptive or innovative style over a long time period.

I like the KAI because it has the virtues of a well-researched background theory; apt-ness for the complex problems we face now; and value for individuals who want to know why their style annoys some, but finds favour with others

To make up your own mind try the:KAI Centre website or Kirton’s book released last July: “Adaption – Innovation, in the Context of Diversity and Change”, published by Routledge.

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