Adaption-Innovation: Strategies for Entrepreneurial Action and Training

S.M. de Chiantis
Occupational Research Centre 2003

KAI theory had long ago begun to show that it has a bearing on advice and training of intending entrepreneurs and, furthermore, that it may have a fall out within management generally, with particular reference to managers with an entrepreneurial role inside a company. This outline therefore sets out the case for undertaking by systematic research, a project based on the informed hypotheses listed, with the ultimate aim of improving existing courses for those who constitute the target population, i.e., entrepreneurs.

An Adaptive Entrepreneur
A ¬___ (as was agreed to name him) was employed in a Government department some years ago and was responsible for the reproduction of the department’s key policy papers. At that time the older ink based machinery was in use and he became known both in his own and other departments for producing the most excellently produced material. Although intelligent and capable of good relationships with his “clients” he was unable, despite his excellence technically, to receive further promotion because of the established structure of the department.

As part of his job he dealt with suppliers of the appropriate materials, particularly of paper. One of these representatives complimented him many times on his work and sometimes took non-sensitive material to exhibit the kind of quality that could be achieved using his product. To our knowledge he was the first person to suggest to A¬___ that he might set up on his own. It was he who suggested that his company might be willing to help him do so in various ways, including substantial discounts from the beginning, even before the quantity ordered warranted them. He also suggested a generous delay in payment for his company’s products to help him become established.

Following this A¬___ did not make any move, but it subsequently transpired that his wife had urged him to make a move and suggested to him that he might possibly be able to negotiate, on leaving the department and setting up, a contract with that department to continue to reproduce a portion of their key work. When later domestic circumstances permitted her to do so, she offered to go out to work to help bring in income during the initial period and also help him at other times with the running of the business. It was apparent that although reasonably socially facilitated he was not at his best in the acquiring of new orders and negotiating with such new clients. He was at his best in maintaining both the social and technical systems, and this proved of great benefit when he eventually set up the new enterprise.

We now know that A¬¬___ was quite markedly adaptive in preference and that both the sales representative and his wife had the opposite personal style.

This case history illustrates one or two interesting points. The first is that it is not only innovators who are liable to break from a system and set up on their own in a (theoretical) one-man business. Second is that the success of this operation (as it later turned out to be) depended upon an informal team backing of two people who supplied the missing ingredients derived from an innovative style. As our collaborating colleague, Dr. Hayward, has already discovered, these many successful one-man businesses do indeed contain “concealed” partners who complement the initiator. This putative finding is now becoming amply supported by information from larger companies with their larger teams, that success is more often achieved by mixed teams rather than by those who are homogeneous in cognitive style. The balance of the mix is, of course, dependent on many circumstances which have not yet been appropriately understood. What is reasonably certain is that they need not be evenly balanced. In the case of the “concealed” partners referred to here, the contribution of the other informal members was considerably less in terms of time and effort than that of the originator who, as it also happens in this case, was an adaptor. Their contribution although less in some terms than his, seems to have been crucial in the initial stages and continued to remain important for at least the year that we were in contact after the firm was established.

Hayward has since collected numerous examples of such “concealed” partners and has anecdotal evidence that their complementariness of the individuals in the group is a critical factor.

The succeeding paragraphs will be drawn from the experiences of Dr. George Hayward, Reader at the Anglian Regional Management Centre derived from the use of KAI on courses for entrepreneurs.

The Problem
The example above was in the main successful, however entrepreneurs often fail. In fact, more than half of all new businesses fail before they are fully established. In order to design effective training one needs to review reasons for their failure. These reasons stretch across a broad domain covering finance, personality, the prevailing economic climate and so on. As Drucker (1985) notes, “courses for entrepreneurs have hardly altered in design from the courses in starting one’s own business some thirty years ago”. If so, they certainly need to do so now!

It is proposed that as ‘entrepreneurs’ tend to represent an unusual group compared to the general management population, formal educational methods appropriate for the general population may not be ideally suited to them. This may have some bearing on an area of growing interest in training – that of learning styles (e.g. Honey and Mumford, 1982) as they must be related to cognitive styles. It is strongly suspected that formal education presented in an ‘institutionalised’ manner may not only be unsuited to entrepreneurs but may actually be detrimental. In some respects, in designing a training package for entrepreneurs a degree of ‘unlearning’ may be necessary initially in order to unfreeze the trainee from defensive, inhibiting attitudes held by him towards formal education in its usual sense.

Literature Review – Proposed Outline
Rapid changes in technology coupled with sizeable recessions in the economy have led to what Drucker (1985) describes, as “a profound shift, from a ‘managerial’ to an ‘entrepreneurial’ economy”.

The terms ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ mean different things to different people and have aroused confusion since the French economist, J.B. Say, coined the phrase in about 1800. Drucker interprets Say’s original term to mean that entrepreneurship is “… doing something differently rather than doing better …” and furthermore that Say coined the term as “a manifesto and as a declaration of dissent: the entrepreneur upsets and disorganises”. Joseph Schumpeter extends this theme describing the entrepreneur’s task as ‘creative destruction’. On reviewing numerous definitions Drucker (1985) uses the definition that “the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity”.

In popular terms, ‘entrepreneur’ is often used to describe one who starts his own new and small business. However, Lynn (1973) distinguishes between the entrepreneur who builds up a company from a new invention, and the entrepreneur who enters an already established field. The latter he describes as providing a safer bet, as the initial teething troubles have already been well tested by others. This observation may be seen as describing two strategies for entrepreneurial activity. This poses the question of whether all new small businesses are entrepreneurial, or whether in fact only a subset of these, with some other distinguishing factors apart from new and small, fall within its definition.

Drucker (1985) also identifies entrepreneurial strategies in terms of the enterprises, policies and practices for interacting with the market place. Each require different behaviours on part of the entrepreneur and have their own associated risks and limitations.

Thus, in view of these observations, it appears more meaningful that entrepreneurial activity may be the manifestation of a number of different strategies, rather than that some new enterprises are or are not encapsulated by the term’s definition. Choice of one entrepreneurial strategy over another is essentially a choice of how the entrepreneur will manage change and planning.

Here the work of M.J. Kirton on Adaptors and Innovators (Kirton, 2003) is relevant, which describes and measures (using the KAI) a dimension of cognitive style which underpins the strategy one is likely to adopt when confronted with change.

The Adaption-Innovation Theory (Kirton, 1976) of cognitive style identifies a bi-polar dimension on which the habitual adaptor and the habitual innovator are at the extreme ends. Use of the Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI), the measure of the theory, has shown that an individual’s position along this dimension is stable and the distribution of a general population sample approximates the normal curve (Kirton, 1976). Adaption-Innovation is a cognitive style manifesting in creativity, problem solving and decision making behaviour. Characteristically, adaptors when confronted with a problem turn to conventional procedures and consensus of the group to which they belong, and derive their ideas towards the solution of the problem from those established procedures (Kirton, 1976). This behaviour is seen as refining existing methods or, in Drucker’s (1969) terms, “doing things better”. Conversely innovators faced with a similar problem will characteristically attempt to restructure the problem by approaching it from a new angle, thus breaking the customary starting point for its solution; an approach which night be described as “doing things differently” (Drucker, 1969).

In short, it would be expected that both Adaptors and Innovators do engage in entrepreneurial activity although, possibly because the innovator’s moves can be more noticeable, the latter may appear to predominate. Drucker (1985) maintains that personality differences are not apparent in entrepreneurs (although he does acknowledge that a low tolerance for uncertainty is likely to be a hindrance) and Lynn (1973) suggests that a need for independence and a high need for personal achievement and success is an asset. Research is needed to confirm the answer to these queries, but In relation to this last point, Adaption-Innovation theory not only posits that both styles engage in entrepreneurial activity, as the dimension is conceptually unrelated (both may recognize and exploit change – only differently) but even supports the contention in that people strong on both preferences tend to be low in their level of self-actualisation (Kirton and Hammond, 1980) and by definition have a strong motivation for personal achievement and personal success (that is, to reach high self-actualisation).

In the small firm, management development is almost synonymous with organisation development. In the same way entrepreneurial strategy is almost synonymous with corporate strategy. It is at this level that the small firm runs into difficulty and is perhaps one factor leading to their frequent failure. The danger for the innovative entrepreneur is that his span of attention may oversee the methodical and systematic approach to managing innovation and will in Drucker’s (1985) terms “violate elementary and well-known rules”. The adaptive entrepreneur may for too long focus his attention systematically and methodically on refining and modifying his initial success and may oversee the ‘precipitating event’ when the market place unexpectedly changes. The adaptor is less likely to leave a current system to start another. Redundancy is one example of the kind of precipitating event that may move him.

These are the problems facing any corporate strategy. However, here the larger company is at an advantage – it has the resources of people to cover individuals’ weakness in teamwork that utilises a diverse range of strategic styles. The small business lacks this richness of diversity and its ‘span of vision’ therefore is somewhat narrower.

In order to facilitate this narrow ‘span of vision’ two training approaches may be adopted. The first involves team building for effective utilisation of strategic styles. The second is to train individuals in ‘coping behaviour’ by allowing insight into their stylistic strengths and weaknesses and encouraging them to increase their flexibility or range of coping behaviour by emphasising the necessity to operate more objectively to situational demands when appropriate. Because of size, the latter training approach is the more appropriate for the training of entrepreneurs, but is now being considered also for large concerns and teaching establishments.

Implications following the above are proposed for the deployment of entrepreneurs within the large organisational setting, acknowledged by futurist Naisbit in his book ‘Megatrends’ as ‘intrepreneurs’. Again, by definition, if entrepreneurship is individualistic and implies “doing differently” from the prevailing environment, then the ‘intrapreneur’ can be either an adaptor in an ‘innovatively’ skewed environment or an innovator in an ‘adaptively’ skewed group. This phenomena has been explored theoretically by Kirton (1984, 1985) who describes these individuals as one type of ‘agents for change’. Here the first training approach is pertinent to increase communication between potentially conflicting individuals. A strategy for doing just this is the deployment of ‘bridgers’ to facilitate this communication gap.

To conclude, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, one can “fool some of the people for some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time”. Some parts of behaviour may be changed through ‘coping behaviour’ over a long period, but to change a wide range of behaviour over a long period is somewhat difficult. It is through the training strategies described in this paper, that the individual may adjust to the demands and indeed derive their rewards, in today’s ‘entrepreneurial economy’.

It will be seen from the outline that enough work has already been carried out to suggest that a research project be undertaken, the results of which will lead to existing courses for intending entrepreneurs and those with a similar role within large institutions.


DRUCKER, P. (1985) Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Heineman, London.

HONEY, P. & MUMFORD, A. (1982) Manual for the Learning Styles Questionnaire.

KIRTON, M.J. (1976) Adaptors and Innovators: A Description and Measure. Journal of Applied Psychology, 61, 622-629.

KIRT0N, M.J. & HAMM0ND, S. (1980) Levels of Self-Actualisation of Adaptors & Innovators.
Psychological Reports, 46, 1321-1322

KIRTON, M.J. (1984) Why New Initiatives Get Blocked. Long Range Planning, 17, 137-143.

KIRTON, M.J. (1985) Adaption-Innovation: A Theory of Cognitive Style. Chapter in book (Editor
Kaufmann G.).

KIRTON, M.J. (2003) Adaption-Innovation: in the Context of Diversity and Change. Routledge

LYNN, R. (1973) The Entrepreneur: Eight Case Studies. Gordon Allen & Unwin Ltd., UK.