My Journey with Adaption-Innovation and KAI

– Dr. Priscilla Wolfe

The benefits are that many people learn to communicate more effectively, are able to reduce stress, make better use of a wider variety of problem solving approaches, and learn to get along better with people who are different from them.

I was introduced to Adaption-Innovation theory and KAI in 1994 during a Creative Problem Solving course in Buffalo, New York. My first reflection about differences in cognitive style was to think about my parent’s relationship and the way they worked together in their custom design jewelry business. Dad was a diamond setter and designed with precision. On very important jobs, he would begin a step-by-step process with a very detailed drawing followed by an intricate wax mold of the piece he planned to craft from gold or platinum. Mom was an artist and designed jewelry with flair and painted in a loose, free-flowing style. She loved to raid the “findings jar” for scrap pieces of gold and design kooky one-of-a-kind earrings, pins, and rings.

Both were very creative but in very different ways. Dad preferred to work with lots of structure whereas Mom was most comfortable when the structure was much looser. Dad admired Mom’s unique designs—he thought she was the creative one—and occasionally grumbled about the sloppy way she sized rings. Mom admired his carefully polished pieces—she thought he was the fine craftsman—and sometimes muttered about his traditional nature and drive for perfection. Neither approach was inherently better than the other one. In a particular circumstance, one approach might be better than the other, but this shifted as the jobs changed

Knowledge of A-I gave me language to explain these differences. In Dr. Kirton’s terms, Dad was a high adaptor, and Mom was a high innovator. The important personal lesson for me was to see how two very different people resolved this large cognitive gap and built a fifty-year partnership on mutual respect, interdependence, and (at many times) tolerance for each other’s different approaches.

My awareness grew as I observed how thinking style differences influenced relationships and group dynamics in different aspects of my life. As I have heard Dr. Kirton say, “Cognitive (thinking) style may not be the most important difference in a particular situation, but it is always part of the equation.”

In 1998, I became KAI certified because it was a requirement for becoming a Creative Problem Solving certified trainer and associate. I soon discovered I had much more than a personality inventory measuring thinking style at my disposal. I could apply key elements of A-I theory on a daily basis in my personal life and in my professional work as Director of the Indiana Creative Problem Solving Initiative (I-CPS-I) at the Blumberg Center. Style differences could be positioned within a much broader context—the management of diversity as part of the management of change.

An important practical contribution I have experienced from A-I theory is the insight that comes from separating style from level of creativity or problem solving. We tend to make value judgments on a person’s skills or level of experience needed to complete a task. Once understood, people are less likely to misjudge style differences as level differences that reflect pejoratively on another’s level of ability, competence, knowledge, or motive. The benefits are that many people learn to communicate more effectively, are able to reduce stress, make better use of a wider variety of problem solving approaches, and learn to get along better with people who are different from them.

Another significant contribution comes from the A-I assumption “All people are creative.” During KAI feedback presentations, I routinely ask for a show of hands from those who believe that all people are creative. The results are stunningly consistent across settings and groups—only 50-60% raise their hands. Like my dad, many people with more adaptive preferences have trouble believing that they are creative. We are bombarded in the media with messages touting the desirability of ‘innovation and creativity’ (used as synonyms). It’s no wonder that roughly half don’t believe they are creative! Separating style from level of creativity helps build better understanding of the bias and respect for the full range of style preferences since A-I theory is non-pejorative, and any position on the A-I continuum has advantages and disadvantages depending on the task.

In 1999, I began an internship studying directly with Dr. Kirton and taught parts of the KAI certification courses held in North America and the United Kingdom. We traveled to Hong Kong in 2001 to conduct two in-house KAI courses for a large bank and to present seminars for business leaders and school administrators. Dr. Kirton and I have taught KAI programs to more than 300 professionals from business, industry, military, higher education, not-for-profit, and government agencies. They come for different reasons and apply A-I in a wide variety of settings. In a recent advanced workshop, we had a spirited discussion about how this work adds valuable insight to the performance appraisal process and building coping skills to manage the stress that comes from working outside one’s preference.

At ISU, we are investigating the establishment of a North American center on problem solving leadership with a goal of continuing Dr. Kirton’s work on A-I theory and KAI. There are opportunities for ISU to form alliances with other institutions of higher education, conduct applied research, and provide service across a variety of disciplines. Over 20 ISU faculty members are KAI certified and represent Business, Technology, Education, Student Affairs, and International Affairs. Some faculty are teaching about A-I in ISU classes, providing service within and outside the ISU community, conducting research, publishing papers, and presenting at professional conferences.

KAI is being used as a professional development activity for ISU students by a number of faculty members. During the Fall 2003 semester, I was invited to administer KAI to a freshman learning community. Students engaged in self-reflection and considered the impact of their own style on learning, related how they engage in group (project) work with other students, as well as how they respond to a professor’s different teaching approaches.

I am interested in formally exploring the impact of thinking style on teaching and learning. Students bring different preferred thinking styles, interests and motivation, life experiences, and levels of achievement to every class. The teacher’s role is to balance these differences with their daily instructional goals. Preferred styles and potential levels need to be considered in order to build knowledge and skills effectively. Teachers who are aware of A-I theory can arrange to better manage differences. Deeper understanding of this diversity allows the teacher to build into lessons the necessary structures to guide students who approach the lesson differently. Teachers can use A-I theory to examine how their style preferences influence the goals they set and the instructional and evaluation methods they choose when mapping out the best learning plans for students.

In 2004 I taught my first solo KAI certification course for the Engineering Division of Penn State University’s Great Valley School for Graduate Professional Studies. As Kirton approaches retirement, we plan to redesign the KAI certification course into a combined distance and face-to-face format and take over the primary teaching responsibilities for public non-credit KAI certification courses in North America. Initial plans have begun to offer our ISU students a cross-disciplinary (elective) KAI certification course for graduate credit in Spring 2005.