Innovators Rule OK or do they?

– by Josephine McHale

Every experienced trainer will be able to quote examples of interpersonal problems which delegates have brought up during training or which have arisen as a result of activities on the course itself. The challenge for all of us is to respond in a way which helps people understand what is happening and which enables them to work out their own strategies for coping with or alleviating the problem.

In this article, we will describe our use of a psychometric measure, the Kirton Adaption- Innovation Inventory (KAI) which we have found invaluable as an aid to diagnosing the causes of interpersonal upsets. We do not claim that it is the universal answer to every situation where two or more people clash, but in working with groups, building up effective teams and in individual counselling, we have found it an invaluable addition to our professional toolkit.

Adaption-Innovation Theory

The Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI) contains 32 items and can be completed in 15-20 minutes. It is concerned with the different ways in which people think, and particularly the way they show their creativity, solve problems and make decisions.

A simple description of Adaptors and Innovators (as if there are these two groups and not a continuum) is shown in Table 1. The continuum as a scale showing observed mean and range is in Table 2. The total score can be divided into three sub-traits: Sufficiency of Originality (SO), Efficiency in regard to detail (E) and Conformity to group norms and rules (R). These are explained as follows:

‘SO’ (Sufficiency of Originality): Those more adaptive prefer to produce a sufficiency of ideas within an existing framework which immediately seem plausible; the more innovative tend to be more obviously radical in their style and to produce a proliferation of ideas whether or not they are needed.

‘E’ (Efficiency): the more adaptive have a preference for thoroughness and attention to detail; the more innovative typically have broader ranging views, incorporating elements often thought irrelevant, who tend to start many things and then get bored following them through. Their style helps them break paradigms, being less wedded to the detail of any one structure.

‘R’ (Conformity to the Rules and the norms of a Group): The more adaptive prefer working within existing practice and custom, valuing group cohesion. They tend to solve problems by good use of rule; the more innovative may act as catalysts to the group and often seem to solve problems by bending or even breaking rules.

1. Characteristics of adaptors & innovators

Safe, reliable, methodical
Disciplined and efficient
Masters detail
Prefers defined problems
Rarely challenges the rules; solves probles by use of rule
Seeks consensus, values group cohesion
Does things better
Provides balance when working with innovator

Thinks in risky, unexpected ways
Little respect for past custom – seen as irrelevant
Trades off detail for over-view;
Questions definition of problem
Often challenges the rules; solves probles despite rule
Can appear insensitive, even abrasive, to group cohesion
Does things differently
Provides dynamics for radical change

2: Range of obtained scores on the Adaption-Innovation continuum

Adaption – Innovation
Most extreme score recorded = 46
Mean score for general poulation = 95
Most extreme score recorded = 146

The important feature of the A-I theory is that it is concerned with thinking style or the way people problem solve (are creative, generate ideas) – the way people respond and use thinking structure, such as paradigm, culture, policy, theory, rules, consensus and so on. It is not concerned (KAI does not measure) any sort of level, capacity or ability. A second key feature is that the theory assumes that all people are creative and the whole range of the continuum has its advantages (depending on the particular circumstance) and is needed by any organisation.

Relevance to trainers

What, you may be asking yourself, has this got to do with the kind of problems which trainers have to cope with – the conflicts and tensions which arise when people have to work together; the disruptive antagonisms which can absorb so much energy?

The answer to this question lies in how adaptors and innovators see themselves and in what they think of each other. Such different perceptions of what behaviour is desirable would not matter if those at different positions on the continuum could recognise their limitations and the advantages (in certain situations) of other peoples’ characteristically different approaches. However, this does not always happen and it is therefore not surprising that problems (and even conflicts) sometimes arise when innovators and adaptors work together. Kirton states that it is the size of the gap that matters. So a mild innovator and a high innovator, for instance, may have as much difficulty to resolve as a mild innovator and a mild adaptor.

Adaptors and innovators vary in the extent to which they are aware of their respective shortcomings. Kirton once divided members of a course into groups according to their KAI scores and asked them to list what they saw as their advantages and disadvantages. Those scoring between 74 and 93 (the more adaptive group), listed ten positive attributes but could think of no negative ones at all! At the other extreme, the two most innovative groups, scoring 126 and upwards, readily admitted to 20 disadvantages of being as they were! This has repeatedly happened in groups with which we have worked. It seems that the adaptors tend not to recognise their drawbacks but are deeply concerned when these are pointed out to them. The reason, Kirton thinks, is that adaptors (certainly those who are successful) believe that the paradigm they work to is good and they use it well – so, what’s the problem! Innovators, on the other hand, do see their own shortcomings, but tend not to care!

This cheerful acceptance of themselves on the part of the innovators can be upsetting for the latter’s assumptions, disregarding the rules and making suggestions which seem way off the beam, the innovator is seen as abrasive and unaware of the disruptiveness of his behaviour. This is hardly the basis for a comfortable working relationship, however much innovators are seen to be needed when problems must be turned inside out.

For their part, innovators commonly harbour some very deprecatory views about adaptors, seeing them as overly concerned with maintaining the status quo, conforming and bounded by convention; in a word, boring. Innovators overlook how much they owe to adaptors, without whom so little would get done.

Theory into practice

Interpersonal problems are a regular subject of discussion on training courses, either as a result of delegates’ experiences in an activity on the course itself, or in relation to a work-based problem on which a delegate asks for advice. Similar problems crop up equally frequently in individual or organisational development work, outside the confines of a particular course. Whatever the context, we have found adaption-innovation theory provides a very useful framework which helps those concerned to see in a different light that which they had previously regarded as an intransigent personality problem. The following case studies are typical examples from our experience.

Case study 1: Resolving conflict

We recently worked with the management team of a small non-profit making organisation whose aim was to generate employment opportunities for the unemployed. At first sight, the team seemed to be effective in that, in a short space of time, they had initiated and found funding for an impressive number of projects. However, closer acquaintance with the group of four managers revealed that the project manager felt isolated from and unsupported by his colleagues, who in their turn, found him almost impossible to work with.

In the course of preliminary interviews with the management team members, it emerged that the administrative manager was intensely antagonistic towards the project manager. While this did have a very deep-seated personal basis, it was by no means the only factor upsetting the relationships between all the members of the group. What we considered to be a very strong clue emerged when we looked at KAI inventory that they had each filled in. These showed big differences in scores between individual members. The project manager was strongly innovative – generating lots of ideas, not being efficient in the short term, and finding it hard to conform to the rules and norms of a group. This was reflected in his behaviour. He was impulsive and fast moving, forever rushing away to meetings, setting up projects and getting people to support them. Unfortunately, in doing this, he showed the classic shortcomings of the innovator: a lack of attention to the detail, which meant that many of his projects were implemented before they had been thoroughly worked out.

The administrator, on the other hand, was an adaptor with the most adaptive score possible on the ‘efficiency’ subscale. Not surprisingly, she placed a high value on order and meticulous method and was, therefore, in a permanently uncomfortable position, trying to sort out the tangles which arose with monotonous regularity.

The third member of the team was even more adaptive, if not quite as adaptively efficient, and found the style of the project manager hard to cope with. Particularly difficult were the regular increases in workload which resulted from the latter’s poorly worked out plans.

The final team member found himself caught in the crossfire, not knowing which part of the team to identify with. This was reflected in his KAI score which was just on the innovative side of the mean for the general population.

Our interpretation was that the personal antipathy between two of the managers and the very different working style within the team, interacted and compounded the problem, producing very sour working relationships. We began to use KAI data as a starting point for talking about some of the problems and to the administration manager in particular, this discussion was something of a revelation. For the first time, she began to appreciate the strengths of styles which were different from her own and could see her colleague in a more charitable light.

We were working towards the point when the management group were willing to discuss the effects their individual approaches were having on each other, and what changes might improve the productivity and harmony of their working relationships. We do not, unfortunately, know the final outcome as outside factors brought our intervention to a halt.

Case study 2: Boss-subordinate relationships

We were able to use KAI’s framework to good effect in counselling a young research and development officer who was in danger of being written off by her boss as unsuited for the job. The researcher was a fairly innovative person who delighted in new ideas and concepts but who tended to start things without knowing quite where she was going. Her projects tended therefore to founder, which led to a very negative assessment of her capabilities by her manager.

He, on the other hand, displayed many of the characteristics of a strong adaptor (though we did not have his KAI score). When the two of them met to discuss progress, our client would want to convey the excitement of her latest ideas while her manager was concerned only with what was going to happen when, who would be involved, what resources were needed and what the outcome would be. Not surprisingly, the two were forever at cross purposes with neither appreciating the other’s strengths.

This illustrates the unfortunate fact that most of us find it so easy to see the disadvantages of others, and the advantages of ourselves. We find it much harder to recognise our own drawbacks. When an adaptive boss falls into this trap, with all the weight of his organisation’s norms and expectations to back him up, the more innovative subordinate can be put in a very uncomfortable position.

This was the case with our client. However, armed with the insights afforded by her KAI score, and the associated theory, we were able to persuade the researcher to adopt a strategy which would enable her to cope with the situation. Our suggestion was that she found a colleague who could share her enthusiasm for ideas but who could also ask the pertinent questions which would help her formulate her plans more tightly. With better structure and more relevant detail, she could go back to her adaptive manager better prepared to present her case in the way that would be more acceptable to him. We are glad to say that this worked!

Case study 3: Working in a team

Our most memorable illustration of KAI’s power in predicting and then explaining events occurred when we used it on a team development course. On the basis of their KAI scores, we divided participants into groups and set them to work for the afternoon on a team exercise. As we had predicted, a group consisting of strongly adaptive delegates settled down to their task without fuss. They met their deadlines, obeyed the rules and at the end, had compiled a product that adaptors would call workman-like but which innovators would dismiss as pedestrian. Other groups produced mixed results, reflecting their composition.

The drama of the afternoon came from the group in which we had (somewhat mischievously) planted three highly innovative participants, one of whom had an extremely high score. The outcome could not have been more spectacular. The group immediately got locked into argument, failed to read the rules and therefore missed their first deadline. That set the tone for the remainder of the afternoon. The three innovators dominated the group. Ideas came pouring out, with debate of their merits replaced by more suggestions. So tense and frustrating did the atmosphere become that one of the three had to retreat from the group at regular intervals in order to calm himself down.

At the hub of all this was the most innovative group member. She was immune to the antagonism that she was creating in the group and doggedly pursued her own plan and got her own ideas accepted. Working throughout the tea break, she eventually wrote, virtually single-handed, the group’s final submission at the end of the exercise. Despite being barely legible, it was by far the most creative and comprehensively worked out product of all. She and her group had broken all the rules (typical innovative behaviour), exceeded their notional budget and ruffled each other’s feathers on the way, but the result was exceptionally good and so different from that of any other group.

One look at her subscale score in KAI explained everything. She had a formidably high ‘originality’ score (hence her proliferation of ideas), and a ‘rule’ score indicating a strong degree of non-conformity to group norms, surprisingly coupled with indications of some adaptive ‘efficiency’. (Innovative style efficiency may be best for shedding structure and breaking rules but rarely works that well in the short term, short of large amounts of coping behaviour, though suggestions for doing things differently might lead to greater efficiency in the longer term). Put the three together and you can see why she was the driving force in the eventual production of an highly original product, the content of which she pushed through regardless of the anger and frustration she was creating in the group; not a comfortable person to work with in a team but, for this task, a formidable combination, nevertheless. Making good use of her is a challenge to her and her team.

A basis for change?

The more sceptical readers may be feeling by now that using an explanatory framework is not enough. Explaining things does not change behaviour much less preferred style. We agree, but this is not the whole story.

KAI can be used as a diagnostic instrument. By highlighting some important aspects of a person’s cognitive style, and therefore their approach to work, it enables them to recognise their strengths and weaknesses and appreciate the influence these have on their dealings with other people- particularly those whose style is very different.

The example we gave in Case Study 2 (the boss – subordinate relationship) takes this one stage further. Discussing KAI with our client helped to counteract the feelings of worthlessness that had arisen as a result of feedback from her boss. By talking through her KAI profile with her, and how her style seemed so different from that of her boss, we helped her to see herself in a much more positive light.

The beauty about KAI is that it makes no negative evaluations about people. Whatever point you find yourself on along the continuum, you will find advantages and disadvantages associated with being there. Indeed, what will be useful and appropriate (advantageous) in one situation might cause problems in another. Armed with this insight, it then becomes possible for people to make informed choices about how they cope with the situations they find themselves in. Their strategy might be to amend their own behaviour, to involve the other party in joint negotiations about how they both might change or to avoid the situation altogether. Whatever their decision, it can be based on a balanced and rational assessment of themselves instead of on an emotional assessment that the ‘fault’ lies in themselves or in the other person.

Kirton argues that those who cannot manage diversity in people are limited in managing wide-ranging change in-groups.

We make no claims that KAI is the complete answer to every interpersonal problem. What we do say is that in our work on building effective teams, running direct training courses and in counselling individuals, we and our clients have found it provides a value free starting point for understanding the dynamics of many diverse situations. What might otherwise have been dismissed as intractable personality problems can be given an unemotive label and productive, unthreatening discussion can then get going.

Our experience is that understanding the differences between styles and recognising the positive aspects of the differences, leads to increased tolerance and eventually to more effective collaboration. This belief is at the root of our approach to developing successful working relationships between individuals.

© COPYRIGHT Josephine McHale, Hamelin Occupational Psychology 1995.

Used by Permission. First published in Training & Development Oct 1986