Advantage and Profit Using Kirton’s Theory and KAI

– by Granville Gott


In this paper I will explain how I think A-I Theory fits into the real world. More exactly, I will try to explain how I have tried it, since I discovered it in ‘my own little world’, as I find it and perceive it to be.

I have chosen to expose the issues as I came to them. This is somewhat autobiographical but it may be helpful in that it shows how my need for A-I thinking developed and then how I was able to use it once it became known to me. I believe my case may be typical for other ‘hard science’ graduates.

As a student it appeared to me that life was more comfortable in rich developed countries such as Switzerland and USA than it was in poorer countries such as India , Nepal , Bangladesh , and most of Africa . Still, in so many countries not only is life less comfortable for most people, but there is less certainty that one’s life will necessarily continue.

As a student engineer I learned of the Industrial Revolution and became aware that the developed countries had previously been underdeveloped countries (by modern standards, if not relative standards) not so very long ago. The present underdeveloped countries appeared to be trying to become developed and it seemed to me that general economic progress depended on a continuous process of creativity and consolidation which enabled whole countries to harness technology and organise it for the benefit of their people. (Ref. 1).

Curiously my British teachers left me with the impression that the Industrial Revolution had now ended which seemed an odd conclusion, if indeed that was their conclusion. I was left with a question “Why ignore the golden goose just because you already have a few golden eggs?”

It was with the above mindset that I entered British industry as a qualified engineer, soon to become a chartered engineer. It seemed axiomatic to me that our engineering product had to be ‘better’ than the competitor’s, so by self-selection I became a creative engineer (Ref. 2) rather than a maintenance engineer. Since an early job was to design (or at least help to design) Concord engines I became very busy in finding out about the things I didn’t understand, but still needed to understand. In the main these were technical issues like aerodynamics, electronics and all the other specialist technical degree topics which live close to my first discipline of mechanical engineering.

Clearly I was aware of the rows and arguments that occurred from time to time but they were frankly not my primary focus. I began to ask myself more fundamental questions to such an extent that matching the engine’s strength to the engine’s power and temperature became subsidiary issues. I was more interested in questions like “Why are we doing it at all?” This caused me to study economics, marketing, sales, accounting, etc, at least enough to understand the economic setting of our technical endeavour. People and their attitudes were still not really on the agenda.

In my middle twenties my company offered me a reward for my inventive work on Concord and similar projects. They paid me my full salary and expenses to attend a year’s MSc course at Cambridge University on design. Technically it was wonderful and I learned some really useful techniques, but we didn’t mix with the Psychology Department at all. I arranged to attend some Economics lectures on a personal basis which seemed to be regarded as a minor tolerable eccentricity.

At around 30 I was recruited by an international chemical company specifically for my interest and track record in creative engineering and creative problem solving. I still had my youthful mindset, which was, that it was in the general interest to support creative growth of our businesses and our economy THEREFORE PEOPLE WOULD SUPPORT THE PROCESS. I was now senior enough to be exposed to all the ‘politics’ and it was quite clear that my assumption was wrong – at least some of the time. Some people supported the process, some didn’t. More baffling, some of the people who exhorted us to be ever more creative were incredibly strong and resolute in opposing all the changes that they insisted were necessary for our progress. It was all very puzzling!

Despite the challenges I managed to invent a few things, build a few factories etc, but the attitudinal clashes still occurred. Looking back on events now I realise that we tended to have a different paradigm in view when we attempted to communicate. This wasn’t the full story but it certainly didn’t help.

Some senior directors were sympathetic and suggested that I “ignore the politics and let your actions speak for themselves”. At a departmental head level or a peer group level my cross boundary creative attempts often caused some (but not all) people to ask for or actually impose ‘rules of engagement’. The most popular and apparently most satisfying to the advocates was “We will encourage you to be as innovative or inventive as you can but only within your own field which we feel should be limited to engineering”. Whilst this was being advocated all staff were being urged to “Focus on the customer” and “Be creative” in advancing the business.

I tried the track record theory. It seemed to me that my best successes scared people. I rejected this explanation as ‘silly’. This seemed to cause a feeling of stress within me. Dr Kirton later explained that the first (improbable) explanation was likely to be correct.

Frankly the conflicting messages were not enhancing my enjoyment of life. With my director’s support I went on a very expensive ‘people skills’ course. When it came to the crunch I was told “You are failing to deal with the psychological needs of the members of your board on an individual basis”. I agreed with this verdict without hesitation and asked “Are you now going to explain how I can do that?” The reply was “No, that’s now up to you”.

It was not long after this that a distant colleague recommended KAI training. I attended and to my amazement I found a simple elegant instrument which offered me the best explanation for all that I had experienced in the past. When I used it in a predictive sense in new work it was a good predictive tool too. It now seems to me that regardless of the situation most people will carry their KAI score with them and behave in accordance with their outlook on reality. Their way of looking at ‘reality’ appears to be much more internally consistent than the types of challenge that may have to be faced.

Onwards and Upwards with Kirton

I now work as a Management Consultant. I accept jobs which require very significant technical change and/or development of market opportunities. I accept that leading on the ‘soft issues’ and managing the consequential ‘people issues’ will be part of the job.

I try to ensure that my client is in charge of his entire business and that he permits me to approach any person within it. I try not to be over strongly associated with one director or senior manager as this can distort an otherwise balanced picture of future business opportunity.

The remits can be very simplistic, for example:

a) Improve product quality

b) Improve relationships with customers

c) Enhance the product offering

d) Increase velocity of manufacturing

e) Reduce fixed and variable costs

f) Improve sustainable profits.

In general it is not one of the above, it’s all of them. However, the remit may be limited to a subset of the business but in all cases so far even the subsets are large and operate globally.

Getting started on these big jobs is not easy. However the client usually asks that they at least give me a chance for a short period. He may say something like “This bloke has had a good track record in provoking beneficial change – let’s see if he can do it here”.

If he calls it ‘innovative change’, then I move quickly to praise the people KAI refers to as adaptors. I stress that we are all equal. At the moment most of my working groups are ‘adaptor heavy’ but I have one which has numerous leads coming from an ultra high innovator with an even higher efficiency score (ie his attitude to efficiency is completely chaotic). In this particular group I provide ‘adaptor counterbalance’ and do it very openly, explaining my actions as I go. This is unusual for me but it is working well so far.

In the working groups I am normally in the chair or have enough influence with the chairman to make my contribution felt at the right time. I attempt to place people on a broad KAI score and then react to them in the way that I hope they will feel appropriate. I no longer ‘fight my corner’. My new intention is to get all the views expressed and put behind the purpose of our joint endeavour. I am usually looking to use innovative energy to destabilise the status quo, in an acceptable way, in order to permit movement of the prevailing view. I then like to encourage the adaptors to come on board and explain to us just how stable the new position is. We may then repeat the process. Equally I try to remain open to a surge of adaptor enthusiasm. This frequently takes the form of getting more useful information out of the available data.

Meeting Dynamics & KAI

It can happen that meetings are shallow or only pay lip service to the intent. In this case I will attempt to draw out potentially strong contributors. A useful technique seems to be:

Tell them what they are thinking

What about

And why


I can’t stress the PAUSE too strongly. The person normally reacts! If one remains very attentive in the PAUSE phase one picks up valuable clues. If you don’t listen to his reply you will be thought of as an arrogant so-and-so and will find it hard to succeed. As Dr Kirton teaches, all of us can manage just so much challenge at any one moment, otherwise we feel threatened. Give them time to adjust to what you are saying, its implications and some time to note that YOU ARE FRIENDLY. Debate is good, conflict is a last resort – another Kirton tit-bit.

If you have got the three points above exactly right, then the person is likely to feel respected, understood, and in a co-operative mood.

In general if you can get two out of three he or she will usually correct you in good faith provided you listen respectfully.

If you get the three points badly wrong, be humble – you will get the opportunity to apologise and give the other person the floor in order to re-educate you and/or the group. This is still progress since someone who was previously a passenger is now converted to a player.

There have been cases where the person responds to the three points with targeted aggression which may have been premeditated. I don’t know if I handle this correctly, but I have a split response on the following lines:

a) If it is a good statement of what he thinks, what about, and why, etc, but laden with aggression, I might attempt a low key summing up of the valuable data (getting it right this time) and side stepping the aggression.

b) If it appears to be all aggression and no data, I usually say “Well, clearly I got that one wrong – can anyone else sum it up better for me?” This often works well. The person can sometimes then separate his aggression from his issues. Beware, innovators are often at variance with everyone else and adaptors can readily combine against a too destabilising a thought.

Another ‘game’ which is repeated fairly often is that strong adaptors present strong pieces of information which they insist are taken into account immediately because it seems to them that if someone else cannot solve them now, then there is no point in continuing.

At this point it is dangerous for the distinctly more innovative present to offer more ‘bright ideas’. My experience is that they provoke more trenchant ‘no go’ statements. A trick I picked up from Louis Tice often helps (Ref. 4). One simply accepts the impasse with due gravity, perhaps even explains it to the rest of the group to establish joint agreement on its (negative) importance. Then one asks the problem’s owner “What would it be like if we didn’t have this problem?” It is simply amazing just how often the problem provider will present an instant solution. A recent example was “Well, the dead stopper is the relative thermal expansions of the two materials. If you changed one of them, possibly to material x, it could be a way out”.

More generally I had an entire Sales and Marketing group telling me how awful Production was. In response I agreed to log all their complaints and act on them. Having paid enormous attention to the Production Manager’s comfort, I then circulated them with a formal note which said:

i) What’s wrong with Production (and all operations)?

ii) What would it be like if we didn’t have this problem?

iii) If the problem was removed, what would it be worth?

The response was very good indeed.

In general my comment on the use of A-I teaching about the management of diversity in meetings is that it is an enormous help but I wish I had a few more tricks like the ones mentioned above to supplement it. However, reminding them that diversity in the team is an advantage – but only if it can be managed does help. Pause as they think again about this, then ask how this Problem B can be managed to Problem A advantage.

A-I and Differential Advantage

It’s been my experience that projects succeed when the wide range of viewpoints within the team (team being the biggest grouping that makes any sense) are used to test and support the endeavour in fair-minded proportions.

Projects fail when a subset of the team wins. Concord was a very interesting technical achievement, for example, but it was not a commercial success and it’s hard to see how it benefited the society which supported it.

Thus it seems to me that the more help we can get from A-I reasoning and things like it, then the more chance we have of increasing our group or national prosperity by peaceful means.

Better people than I have contributed to this field. I have found the following references helpful:

1. The Competitive Advantage of Nations . Michael G. Porter. The MacMillan Press. This book gives a global overview.

2. Competence based Competition . Edited by Gary Hamel and Aime Heene . John Wiley & Sons . This book gives a clue on how to move from global perceptions to specific competence based competitive actions.

3. Kirton Adaptive Innovative Inventory scores with individual feedback to all team members before we get too deep. Dr M J Kirton . Occupational Research Centre . I have found this to be the best explanation of why people will support or resist a possible change process. I do however feel a need to connect it to other measures better than I do at present.

4. A Better World. A Better You. Louis E. Tice (Pacific Institute) . Prentice Hall . The quotation “What would it be like if we didn’t have the problem?” comes from a Lou Tice video. In general I have found the videos more helpful than the book.

Finally, this is just my personal window on the world. It’s early days insofar as I have not known about A-I theory and KAI for very long. However it appears to have made my problem solving skills significantly more effective and it’s a lot more pleasant and stress free to lead people through unchartered problems without bumping into damaging situations accidentally and unnecessarily.