Facilitating Creativity with Style: Understanding and Valuing Differences

Diane Houle-Rutherford (2002)


The mental processes used in problem solving, according to Kirton, must take in into account, first the observation of (or search for) appropriate opportunity and then deploy the necessary motivation to exploit them successfully. Second, there are the two main variables that are used in the successful delivery of the exploitation of opportunity: capacity, e.g., skills, knowledge, experience and the preferred style of individuals as they both relate to one’s creativity, problem solving and management of change. The creativity literature, however, historically has concentrated its efforts on capacity and has often confused it with style. So how can we tell the difference? One sure way is by noticing the different questions we put forward when we need to measure either of them: for style the question could be: “In what way do you prefer to solve problems?” whereas for level (of capacity) it is “how well can you deliver?

So, why learn about styles?

It offers a fresh insight into inter-person conflict (people with widely different styles of problem solving tend to fall out)
With this insight we can pave the way to more, as well as more fruitful, collaboration between individuals (boss – employees, colleagues, facilitators – clients, teams)
It allows us to get on with others while remaining different from them, by valuing the difference between them and us.


How different are we? Looking at other people around us we can easily identify various factors that could be considered different: we may speak a different language, we may have skin with a different colour, we may be of a different age group, gender, social or professional background. As a society we try very hard to understand the other groups. We have focussed our attention on awareness, understanding and appreciation of people that are obviously different. We even have policies to ensure that people are treated equally and fairly. We say we are “different but equally valuable”. Of course, we do not think with our skin, but the other variables I have mentioned are reflected in some of the values connected to our thinking. Of these, there are two that are of key importance because they have a direct affect on what we think: Level (e.g., capacity, knowledge, experience) and style. Whilst, our characteristic style of solving problems (being creative) seems, to many, to be less obviously important, nevertheless, style and level differences are always present and often confused and misunderstood. We have all experienced situations where our level of comfort varies greatly depending on whom we are with; there are some with whom we feel very comfortable yet others with whom, for some reason, we do not seem to connect. Difficulties that arise from those differences are sometimes labelled “personality clashes”. One explanation for these differences resides in the characteristic way (style) that people prefer to solve problems. Understanding these differences is the first step towards valuing them and Adaption-Innovation Theory shows how every style is uniquely valuable to groups and organizations. We are different AND equally valuable.

The paradox of structure

So we are different, but how? Everyone makes decisions, solves problems and deals with changes every day. We all need (cognitive) structure to solve problems – what we know (or do not), motive, attitude, belief, plans, policies, theories as well as style constitute structure. Such structure is enabling – it helps us achieve – but it is, at the same time limiting. What is different is how we prefer to go about solving problems by managing our available structure? Some people will prefer to operate, i.e. solve problems and make decisions, within a given structure, while others may work inside or outside the generally agreed structure, but will frequently do so around and across the edges. These style differences are normally distributed on a continuum ranging from highly adaptive (a preference for a relatively high degree of structure) to highly innovative (a preference for a relatively low degree of structure). The more adaptive person prefers to deal with problems associated with more structure – they can work more comfortably within an existing paradigm while the more innovative prefer to deal with problems with less structure and will be more likely to work on the edges of the prevailing paradigm. Both perceive the same structure differently: the adaptor is more likely see the enabling aspects of a current structure whereas the innovator is more likely see its restricting aspects. Both need structure but manage it differently: The more adaptive change the paradigm as they use it, mainly by improving it. The more innovative see a need to change the structure in order to solve their problem.

The way we manage structure (the paradox of structure, actually) has a marked impact on how we deal with problems and the types of solutions we envisage. So, let’s describe style differences in brief in terms of the management of structure. But never forget that every time we solve a problem we all inevitably change the structure with which we started. To that extent we are the same.

Description of Styles

To review the link between style and structure:
The more one is an adaptor, the more one has regard for current structure (policies, rules, paradigms) and consensus and will prefer to problem-solve or create by refining, extending and improving the current generally accepted practice, pattern of operation, usage, strategy or paradigm. Adaptors aim, in novel ways, at doing things “better”. So, adaptors bring about change as an outcome of solving their problems.

The more one is an innovator, by contrast, the less tolerant of structure (policies, rules and paradigms) and less respectful of consensus one is. Innovators often prefer to “do things differently” and such major remoulding or breaking of paradigms means loosening structure and challenging consensus until the new way is adopted and becomes the new structure or paradigm. Innovators are likely to make a change to the current structure (from within which the problem emerged) in order to solve it. They may then make further changes as an outcome of using the solution – as adaptors do.
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Benefits of Understanding Style

For myself ….

“He who knows others is learned, he who knows himself is wise” Lao Tse

Learning about style allows us to:
understand our personal strengths and limitations
identify the ways we prefer to work with challenges and opportunities
go beyond our tendencies

For working with others ….

Learning about style when working with others provides an opportunity to
gain better knowledge about one another
develop a common language for problem solving
better synchronize the participation of all members

For working with organizations ….

Learning about style when working with organizations enables us to
understand the dynamic of, and possible source of conflict within organizations
better understand the needs and expectations of the clients
design interventions, sessions and workshops that will fit with the need of the situation

Implications for facilitating sessions and working with teams

First – understanding the client and the organization

The way people think (cognitive style) affects the way they behave. Different (cognitive) styles of leadership will influence the perception of the need for environmental changes (e.g., Rickards, 1980) and produce in the end completely different approaches and practices. The cognitive profile of leaders will also be reflected in their vision and mission and in the managerial decisions they make. Change is a permanent fact of life: how we manage change is a strategic factor for the future development of organizations.

Not only will the cognitive style of leaders affect their perception of the need for change, but it will also impact on the kind of problem solving and decision making approach they will take. An adaptive approach aims at using the existing paradigm and attempting to improve it – make things better – in a way that is consensually agreed to, while the innovative approach is likely to challenge the more traditional way of doing things in order to create a radical new way of doing things. Having an appropriate balance of adaptors and innovators in key management positions at the right time will contribute to effectively balance the need for continuity and change. Understanding your clients’ needs is key!

Second – managing your relationship with the client

Research confirms (Kirton, 2003) what theory expects, that groups, who either function across boundaries within an organization or have an orientation outside the organization, would have a bias toward innovation. Those groups with a much more inward focus of operation, or internally oriented departments such as production or maintenance, would show significantly more adaptive orientation. Consequently, what could be the implications on the working relationships between two groups having such a different preference or approach?

Here is an example. A study concerned with project managers indicated that there was an important implication arising from the fact that project managers were likely to co-operate with client managers who had a significantly more adaptive cognitive style….

“In such situations it is unlikely that the client manager will mediate his/her preferences by modifying behaviour. Hence, in order to reduce conflict and promote a harmonious working relationship, it is the more innovative project manager, in the rôle of supplier, who will have to adopt a coping strategy. This will generally entail managing the project in a more structured manner than s/he would prefer, including paying more attention to detail, de-risking decisions, reporting progress at more frequent intervals and being more aware of consensually agreed rules, procedures and power structures.” (Tullett, 1995).

Are those conclusions also relevant to individuals working as facilitators?

If so, in what way can this information be useful?

Since no study, to my knowledge, addressed the world of facilitation, participants to the 2000 International Association of Facilitators conference were asked to complete KAI before my session. The aim was to gather data on a relatively small sample of facilitators to assess whether the hypothesis that people working as consultant to groups would have preferences that were significantly different from the general population, and if so, provide some basis for further study. The scores of the 54 completed inventories proved very interesting.

As hypothesized, participants attending the session had a mean score that is more innovative than the general population. Although the sample is relatively small, the results indicated that the mean score for the group was 112 compared with an average for the general population of 95. Interestingly, a further analysis indicated that the mean score of the Self-employed (122) was higher than the mean score of participants working within a Corporation (109) or for a Government organization (106). This all accords with A-I theory.

Implications for facilitators:

Of course the implications will be situation specific. Is your client or the group that you are facilitating more adaptive or more innovative than you are? Regardless of your position on the A-I continuum, you will be called to deal with groups whose mean score could be quite different from yours. The impact on the working relationship between you as facilitator and your clients may be important. As an example, Kirton suggests that a difference of 10 points on KAI score is noticeable; at 20 points, the differences are evident and communication problems begin; increasingly thereafter, there will be major differences in approach and efforts will be needed to enable easy, clear communication.

What are the implications for you as a consultant and on how you might have to manage situations where your style and that of your client are very different? Of course, knowing about styles provides a good framework for your analysis of the situation and possible strategies. To help you understand what might be happening when working with groups, I would like to provide you with a simple framework:

Whether interventions take an hour or over a period of several days the intervention process can be summarized as a three-step model, all of which are liable to be affected by the thinker’s style:
Understanding, defining the problem or issue or objective at hand
Looking for or generating ideas, solutions, options, etc.
Coming to a decision and planning its implementation.

The process versus the style differences

The following behaviour descriptions will provide you with some insight into the differences between groups where the average score of members are either highly adaptive or highly innovative.

1. When understanding, defining the problem, issue or objective:

High Adaptors:
will tend to accept the problem as given
will prefer to continue being relatively more structured
will focus on key issues – identify the important data
will carefully state (define) the problem – to ensure a relevant solution
may focus more on current reality than on desired future
High Innovators:
will be likely to re-define the problem
may change the definition of the problem to fit a desired solution
will likely focus more on the desired future instead of the current reality

2. When generating ideas, solutions or options:

High Adaptors:
will generate a variety of practical and useful ideas – they expect a low failure rate
High Innovators:
will readily generate many novel and unusual ideas, some of which may be seen as not directly related to the problem statement – they tolerate a high failure rate.

3. When planning for action:

High Adaptors:
may generate many criteria to analyze new ideas
will be thorough and patient in working out details
High Innovators:
will try to maintain the presence of novelty when generating criteria and preparing to gain acceptance of the solutions
need to sell the new paradigm as well as a solution.


Of course other factors such as the motivation, values, skills, knowledge and culture of the people within organizations will have an impact on how they will behave in groups. On these variables we also all differ – and so these differences, like those of style, are further elements in our management of diversity. However, the problem solving style of participants will also play an important rôle and may provide an alternate explanation for situations otherwise hard to explain. Needless to say, your own style will also affect how you deal with groups in terms of the precision, the level of detail, the structure, the scope and the expectation of the work to be done. One way to view your rôle as a facilitator, in terms of A-I Theory is to guide the group in selecting and successfully using the correct, and correct amount of, structure to solve effectively the problem your group is dealing with. To determine the correct amount of structure requires consideration of the style of the problem, the desired solution, the style of the members of the