This book offers new insights and understanding for both managers and academics into people’s preferred thinking styles and how they affect ways of doing things, their outcomes and other people, in both organisations and elsewhere.  In most organisations individuals are still mostly considered as technically knowledgeable process boxes where given the right inputs, training and environmental conditions the required outputs are expected to appear, working well, smoothly and on time.  There is still little consideration of the match between the different ways in which all people think, problem solve and create and the demands and constrains of efficient management, the organisational environment and the others with whom they work.  These different ways of problem solving encompass a range between bringing about change by working with and within the prevailing paradigm and by first altering this structure in order to bring about desired change.

Thinking style is explored, amply supported by research, and located in problem solving as a whole.  Then problem solving is set in the wider, entirely practical, context of the management of diversity (including the diversity of styles) and of change.  In this wider setting, problem solving leadership depends less on the technical expertise of a select few and more upon the selection of appropriate groups that can collectively solve critical, complex problems, in challenging environments aided by problem solving leaders.  To meet the demands made of managers in today’s climate, these leaders require not only the technical expertise to hold the respect of their teams but also knowledge of the problem solving process and of problem solvers.  This notion is currently getting better considered, as when Khurarna (2002) warns against over-reliance on the charismatic superstar: “When a company is struggling [its directors] will not be satisfied with an executive who is merely talented and experienced.  Companies now want leaders.”


The Adaption-Innovation Theory relates to thinking style – usually referred to in the literature as cognitive style.  This theory explores and describes human preferred individual differences in the way they solve problems; its related psychometric inventory locates individuals on a continuum ranging from high adaption to high innovation. 

Thinking is the means by which we solve problems and are creative (whatever the distinctions between these two terms may be).  Everything that lives has to manage the changing world about it and acquire those things that it needs to survive.  If enough individuals of a species survive long enough to reproduce successfully that species continues to survive.  This is not easy, the species that exist today are reckoned to be but one percent of all that have ever lived; we are among the few survivors.  Mankind, one of the latest arrivals, must also manage change and diversity or perish.  In one form or another, whether understood by the individual or not, problem solving is the key to life.  Every species does so differently.

This book examines thinking style in the context of problem solving, the key to survival, of which it is an element.  In doing so, other elements of problem solving: level (capacity), motive and perceived opportunity, are dealt with in depth and others, more lightly, such as learning, attitude, belief and group dynamics.  Style, within problem solving, is then set into the wider context of the management of change and diversity.  The examples that illustrate the relationships of these elements are drawn mainly from biology, psychology, sociology, politics, management, military history, science and the arts.  This range shows how the brain, unaltered for a hundred millennia, solves a vast diversity of problems in much the same general way.  However, every individual is also unique, as each brain operates with small but vital, characteristic variations.  This diversity of problem solver is at once an advantage and an added problem: how to combine to solve those problems that cannot be done alone yet how to manage people not like us.  This and a number of other themes thread though this book.  The paradox of structure, from personal experience to social paradigm, is another; without it we cannot think, but, while enabling, it is also limiting.  We each solve this paradox, as every other problem, differently.

The breadth of the setting underlines how such seemingly small differences in thinking between people (Mankind contains no sub-species) have been exploited so successfully.  In fact, so successfully has this brain worked that the majority of the trickiest problems it now faces are as a result of its success and our growing expectation of further success.  The standards required of today’s problem solvers would surely have left medieval monarchs amazed – the nature of progress is truly catalytic, feeding with increasing rapidity on its own success.  Not perhaps surprisingly, the theme of the next chapter is that problem solving is the key to all life.  The more we understand problem solving and the problem solver the better off we might be; such added knowledge can be put to good advantage particularly in problem solving leadership. 

The foundations must first be understood. All forms of life, Mankind included, have evolved a structure that fits all their survival needs, e.g., finding and absorbing appropriate nutrient.  This structure is also limiting, e.g., the eyes that are good in daylight are poor in half-light.  Mankind has become expert in overcoming many limitations, but the underlying structure remains the same.  The astronaut may get to the moon but still walks to the space vehicle; the image that is enhanced by the telescope passes through the eye developed many millions of years ago to a brain that has remained unaltered for 100,000 years.  So problem solving needs to exploit but not ignore these limits; Mankind has developed the greatest facility of working round natural limits that the world has yet experienced.

The world’s more advanced life forms have developed instincts.  Instincts are so complex (like building a nest) they transcend the more primitive built-in biomechanical responses and yet are so rigid that each one is immediately recognisable by experts as belonging to a particular species.  Each represents a whole problem solving process: problem identification, solution selection and implementation.  The survival value of instincts is immense, for they can all be done without learning; indeed without ever having been seen done by another.  Yet they operate almost perfectly on the first occasion they are used even if learning can be added on to them to enhance the base response they provide.  Their weakness is that they are hard wired: once triggered every individual must operate in the same way and changes to instincts can only come about by breeding not by thinking.  Using this precise biological definition, Mankind is unique – having no instincts.  When we perceive a danger ahead while driving we do not ‘break by instinct’.  We have learned to do so – perhaps so well that it is now a conditioned reflex but all complex problem solving response is learned, nevertheless.  For Mankind, what we need to know we must be taught.

Learned problem solving, well developed in all higher order species, offers the widest potential range of responses and the greatest problem solving flexibility.  The advantages of problem solving are obvious for Mankind’s achievements are huge compared to any other organism (indeed, most of the problems we currently face are of our own making) but the expense is high.  Everything we do, except for those in-built structures, has to be learned: who are our enemies, what to eat, how to get it, how to mate, how to give birth or how to nurture our young.  As learning takes time and practice, our young are more vulnerable, for longer, than those of any other species.  In order to survive we need continually to learn.  A-I Theory emphasises two key issues: (a) When we problem solve we are limited by the way we are built (e.g., our intelligence, no-one has endless capacity or flexibility) but we have no instinct to help or hinder us.  (b) All of us are intelligent and creative, at different levels and with different styles, and, therefore all of us are capable of problem solving, as long as there is both motive and opportunity.

In this book cognitive style will be defined and described within the problem solving process; then this process will be set in the wider context of the management of change and diversity.  The aim is to add to the understanding of the human problem solving process in a wide variety of situations over long periods of time.   The breadth of the setting underlines how these seemingly small differences in thinking between people (Mankind contains no sub-species) have been exploited so successfully.  In fact, so successfully has this brain worked that the majority of the trickiest problems it now faces are as a result of its success and our growing expectation of further success.  The standards required of today’s problem solvers would surely have left medieval monarchs amazed – the nature of progress is truly catalytic, feeding with increasing rapidity on its own success.  Not perhaps surprisingly, the theme of the next chapter is that problem solving is the key to all life.  The more we understand problem solving the better off we might be.

We are indebted to the ancient Greeks for usefully dividing knowledge into that of physics and metaphysics, thereby allowing us to study and reveal understanding of nature’s laws in each area with better precision.  From physics and later chemistry comes the discipline of biology from which, in turn, emerges the discipline that studies behaviour – that of psychology.  From the study of the outcome of the minds of humans emerge all the other disciplines currently on offer.  Adaption-Innovation theory, therefore, relates to many very different topics, each closely interlinked with the others, stretching from biology across psychology into sociology and on into every area of human problem solving – from anthropology and the progress of science, business and government, warfare and conflict to the writing of music and the teaching of art.  It appears that brain function does not make much distinction between the many kinds of problem it has to solve or the disciplines from which they emerge.  The distinctions may only be how familiar with the problem, the amount of effort needed to master it and the degree of satisfaction derived from its resolution.  In understanding problem solvers it is useful, then, to view the applicability of any hypothesis, finding or derived theoretical notion, over a wide range of human activity.  If they illuminate widely over incident, time and culture they are likely to be revealing of problem solvers generally.

It is an added complication that there are many other theories and fields of study that relate to problem solving, including popular but untested beliefs, practices and plain muddles, particularly those involving such trendy terms as ‘creativity and innovation’ or ‘instinct’.  Terms like these, that are notoriously hard to define and harder to measure reliably, either need to be better defined or avoided.  Instinct, for example, is defined so that it is not mistaken either for the way the structure of the brain works or for learning.  This is rather like the distinction between the hard wiring of the computer (what it is designed to do), the software (built-in problem solving programs) and the operator’s own programs.   The value of these distinctions is that we can understand better the limits of the brain’s function and learn better to allow for them whilst learning to work round them.   Creativity, to take a second example, is treated as a sub-set of problem solving: useful in general discussion but not much use, at present at any rate, in measurement.  Only one term is needed (the brain does not appear to distinguish them) for serious matters, such as management, counselling or research.  We can, for these purposes, just rely on the term problem solving; this should help get clearer hypotheses to test and, possibly, clearer answers to our questions. 



Understanding Adaption-Innovation

The Adaption-Innovation theory is founded on the assumption that all people solve problems and are creative.  This theory is concerned only with style; with how people solve problems.  Both potential capacity (intelligence or talent) and learned levels (such as management competence) are completely independent characteristics and assessed by other measures.  This means that innovators and adaptors can each be found at every kind of these levels – from the highest to the lowest.  Therefore, the terms ‘more adaptive’ or ‘more innovative’ are more precise than ‘adaptors’ and ‘innovators’, for the theory describes a normally distributed continuous range and not just two types.  The more adaptive prefer their problems to be associated with more structure, and with more of this structure consensually agreed, than those who are more innovative.  The more innovative are more tolerant, at least while in the pursuit of a solution, to looser guiding structure.  However, all brains need such structure or they cannot operate.  Indeed, at the very core of the brain’s success is the amount of structure it can accumulate and use well in solving the problems it perceives as needing to be solved.  Just one example of structure is language – and no other organism could have written this text or is able to read it. 

Many other structures are required, e.g., the preferred style with which we solve problems, the content of our memory, our array of skills.  Other vital guidelines that are built up by learning are our attitudes and beliefs that allow us to access information in understood patterns.  One of the key notions of the book is the paradox of structure: that it is, at one and the same time, both enabling and limiting.  We endeavour constantly to exploit structure and manipulate its limits.  Adaptors and innovators do so differently.  One way of summing up these differences is to say that the more adaptive  prefer to solve problems by the use of rules and the more innovative despite the rules.  Here, ‘rules’ are used to represent all cognitive structures; examples of other terms are: theories, policies, precedents, terms of reference and paradigms.  The argument also advanced, supported by research, is that these differences in preferred style are stable but that we nudge the limits they impose by coping behaviour.

Another key element in the theory is that only individuals think.  Brains cannot be linked together like computers.  Whenever I ask you for help, and you agree, we are each instantly faced with two problems.  Problem A is the reason we have formed the group – the reason for the formation of any group of living creatures – mutual self-help.  But we have also acquired Problem B, how to manage each other – all without aid from instinct, as is explored fully in a following chapter.  The main thought that emerges is that unsuccessful problem solving teams spend more energy on Problem B than A.   Yet we need each other; there are too many limits to an individual working alone to solve most problems that demand solution.  Another thought explored is that such diversity of problems requires for their resolution a diversity of resources, including a diversity of problem solvers (and we are back to Problem B).  Adaption-innovation is just such a diversity of resource.  The more diversity of resources at a team's disposal, the greater is its potential to resolve an array of problems.  But stockpiling diversity is an added burden, for diverse teams are more difficult to manage.  In the case of style, this is because each individual’s preference can also be seen to have disadvantages and to be a potential source of cost, friction and distraction.  Each individual is a unique diversity (or, strictly, a complex of diversities) and, within a group, has to face this problem two ways: how to present this diversity as more useful than expensive and, for the same reason, to be tolerant of another's similar presentation.  The whole range of diversity needs to be managed well for the common good.  If not, then although such management of change may be efficient, it will be narrow. It will be argued that the adherents of competing narrow views are liable to produce a pendulum of vacillation instead of a progression of change.  Such narrow ranging views are likely to create resistors to change.

Defining Cognitive Style

The first time anyone becomes aware of cognitive style is when a predictable difference is noticed between the ways (manner, style) that any two people appear to go about solving similar problems.  A person behaving persistently differently from oneself may be just an intriguing fact, or turn out to be useful or even irritating.  These are marked tendencies, within a single continuum, that are so stable that they are liable to persist even in circumstances in which it appears, at least to others, to be a disadvantage.  A curiosity is that most such disadvantages that emerge are noticeable less in oneself than in others.

This difference is in the individual’s preferred direction of focus, whether within or across boundaries.   Adaptors more readily anticipate threats from within the system (often devising, in good time, plans to economise, downsize, etc.), whereas innovators are more ready to anticipate events that might threaten from outside it, such as, the earlier signs of  changing taste and markets or significant advances in technology not yet fully exploited.  In research, it was noted that every manager tended not only to miss some cues that were picked up by others but also found their warnings irritating and distracting ‘to the real issues’ (i.e., the ones they could see clearly).  Often the cues missed or noted fell into a pattern, some managers missing cues emanating from within the system and others missed those from outside.  This suggested the influence of style differences rather than of skill.

However, there is a marked tendency for people to attribute differences in style (indeed, any differences between them and others) as level differences.  The principal reason may be that such judgements rarely take enough of the relevant data into account.  It is not clear to any observer making the judgements whether the characteristic is inbuilt or learnt, whether it can be readily varied to accord with circumstance, whether we are all liable to the same kind of tendency (erring by no lesser degree but in different ways, on different occasions) or whether there is an unsuspected advantage to the group for having within it people who have such different attributes.  These are rarely serious topics of conversation for the managers; yet this knowledge is at the core of leadership.  Despite the fact that such differences are often erroneously seen as a deficiency of level (ability or capacity) the early work in Adaption-Innovation stated simply that managers' capacities do not account for these differences in approaching problems; they seem to be differences of style.  It seems a simple issue, but it has become more and more obvious that this sharp distinction between style and capacity is not wholly understood, much less wholly accepted.  The confusion between level and style seems to contribute significantly to difficulties that have above been dubbed as Problem B, so this confusion is well worth untangling.  The confusion spreads when such terms as ‘creativity and innovation’ or ‘change agent’ are used to imply that innovation alone will solve all problems and only a few of us can bring about change.  Such terms are divisive, creating ‘resistors to change’ among those who think more clearly or among those who are made to feel excluded.

Description of Adaption-Innovation

So far, this description has been in wide terms and in the context of general problem solving – the way the problem solver relates and manages cognitive structure; in fact, though, any structure perceived by the brain has to be converted into cognitive structure if it is to be used to problem solve. The A-I characteristic is one such structure, which with other influences on behaviour, like attitudes, plus those behaviours make up the domain of personality.  A chapter is devoted to this link listing, in theory supported by research, the many different traits relating to cognitive style, such as: risk-taking, dogmatism, tolerance of ambiguity, extraversion, conservatism, flexibility, etc., but excluding such traits as anxiety, neuroticism, or any other element of cognitive affect. This inter-relationship with so large an array suggests a continuum at the level of a dimension of personality. 

To assist the reader to get an overview of these terms in the context of brain function, a schema has been devised.   As with all schemata, this is a simplification of a complex reality, which one hopes, nevertheless, may give a useful overview of the brain’s inter-related functions.  Within this embracing structure, the key elements of the brain’s function have been entered as if they were departments of a business enterprise, devoted to its own survival.  Style appears in the ‘planning’ department, taking instruction from the boardroom – the department of cognitive affect that decides what problem is to be tackled and what kind of solution will satisfy.  A third, ‘backroom’, department of cognitive resource processes (through learning) and then stores all experience on which the other two rely for past reliable information.  These elements of cognitive function are stable, characteristic influences on behaviour, which together with stable characteristics of behaviour make up an individual’s personality. 



Finally, it can be salutary to reflect that all the problems of human survival have been solved only by that one unaltered brain.  Like modern boardrooms and governments, whole populations, in the Fertile Crescent, the West, China, America and Australia, have had periods of technological advance, stagnation and even retreat – variations that often have been attributed to high or low capacity of various whole populations.  In the past, the fate of defeated populations attracted little sympathy among the victors.  In many quarters today, an alternative extreme view is that the winning groups of the past are tinged with evil and the losers have never done wrong.  However, these phenomena need to be seen in cooler perspective else the righting of perceived ancient wrongs may cause yet more damage.  The indubitable backdrop fact is that all organisms (alone or in groups) succeed at the expense of others – all change, however much it might be deemed as good by the cognoscenti, destroys something.  How can we ensure the values of competition yet avoid the disasters of aggression?  A brief anthropological review suggests that basic opportunities for social advancement (the natural local occurrence of useful plants, animals or materials) were available in very different amounts in different environments – with the Fertile Crescent and China being heavily favoured.  The argument advanced is that opportunity, or lack of it, must be a prime factor in differences of advancement of whole populations.  This is also true within any group or culture.  But there is another factor, some changes that are on offer (or when first on offer) may appear more as threats than chances not to be missed.  As with individuals, so with cultures (which are the reflections of their members’ shared structures): different environments offer varying opportunities at differently perceived cost, to be managed, then exploited.  People, alone or in groups, among hunter-gatherers or in boardrooms, are constantly faced with choices and we need, in today’s increasingly complex world and increasing individual expectation (at ever lower human cost), better understanding by more of us of the principles on how they are made.   

The winners among groups of people may start off with only a small advantage over others but change is catalytic in its nature – one change leading to an advantage is the base for another change that leads to greater advantage.  Gradually, this spiral of change becomes irresistible, giving overwhelming power to those in the lead.  All organisms succeed at the expense of others. The winners take over space and resources for their own ends; others, even sub-sets of their own kind (unless protected by an instinct mankind does not posses) can be killed, eaten, enslaved, absorbed (lose identity) or brushed aside into unfashionable addresses.  Mankind has tried all this with other organisms and within its own barely defined sub-sets.  The process of collaborative problem solving needs to be better understood so that it can be more insightfully applied.  We all need to understand better how to manage diversity so that we can manage change more effectively.  To manage diversity one must first accept that it exists; every individual is unique and so is a minority of one.  Each person needs to consider the balance of the costs against advantages of uniqueness to a group's survival; that every right an individual claims needs to be offset by obligation, for rights without obligations are accorded only as charity not as a part of an equal mutual exchange.  This are not just matters of ethics but of mutual survival because:

a diversity of problem solvers is required to solve a diversity of problems;

style is a diversity in the very core of each individual’s  problem solving process;

managing diversity is a key to achieving required change efficiently.




Problems have become so complex, and the penalty for not solving many of them so high, that every individual needs to study the problem-solver as one more problem needing to be solved.  Experts alone cannot be concerned with this problem; their task is to help others understand it also.  The problems of survival directly concern us all.


© M. J. Kirton 2002. No part of this article may be reproduced without the express permission of the author.