25 June 2014

Q: Adapter or innovator? A: Adapter

I follow Joyce Seitzinger (@catspyjamasnz) on Twitter and today she posted this tweet from an event for doctoral students at Charles Sturt University:

What a good question! A little bit of digging later and I have discovered that I am most definitely... an adapter. Yep, not an innovator. Despite having worked in 'emerging' areas and 'startup' roles for the past twelve years, despite hanging out in a team with software developers that make cool things, and despite being a change agent in almost every job I seem to get, I am definitely not at the innovator end of the spectrum as described by Michael Kirton, the psychologist who has developed an instrument known as the KAI (Kirton Adaption–Innovation) Inventory based on research he conducted in the 1970s and 80s.

Kirton has released another book more recently that I think I might have to track down to read to learn more about this [1]. In the meantime, a nice summary of the characteristics of adapters and innovators as outlined by Kirton is provided by Hipple et al [2].

Efficient, thorough, adaptable, methodical, organized, precise, reliable, dependable Ingenious, original, independent, unconventional
Accepts problem definition Challenges problem definition
Does things better Does things differently
Concerned with resolving problems rather than finding them Discovers problems and avenues for their solutions
Seeks solutions to problems in tried and understood ways Manipulates problems by questioning existing assumptions
Reduces problems by improvement and greater efficiency, while aiming at continuity and stability Is catalyst to unsettled groups, irreverent of their consensual views
Seems impervious to boredom; able to maintain high accuracy in long spells of detailed work Capable of routine work (system maintenance) for only short bursts; quick to delegate routine tasks
Is an authority within established structures Tends to take control in unstructured situations

In looking at this list I would definitely put myself more in line with the first column than the second, and many of my colleagues more towards the second column. Interestingly though, many people who have written about this topic mention people who sit somewhere between the two extremes who can act as "bridges".

It's important to note that Kirton and those that are using his methods don't say that either adapters or innovators are more creative than the other group. Rather they are just different styles and different ways of approaching problem solving that might work more or less effectively depending on the context. You also do not have to be an innovator to be a change agent; in fact, in order to be a change agent in a particularly innovative environment you might actually need to take a more adaptive approach. (That is an odd thing to get your head round, but it does make sense eventually.)

Ideally you would have people with a mix of these characteristics as part of a team, although the article that includes the table above also mentions some of the perceptions that each group has of the other. According to that, I am probably seen by some of my more innovative colleagues as
Dogmatic, compliant, stuck in a rut, timid, conforming, and inflexible
while I could perceive them as
Unsound, impractical, abrasive, undisciplined, insensitive, and one who loves to create confusion
I am not sure if we could all actually work together if we had such a harsh view of other people's approaches, but there is probably a kernel of truth in these descriptions too. As "the librarian" in the team I do often seem to be the "voice of reason" banging on about boring things like copyright and complying with University policy when everyone else is excited about getting some hacking done.

Have you come across the Adaption-Innovation Inventory before and where do you think you might sit on this continuum? Do you work with people who are similar to you, or do they sit at the other end of the spectrum?


[1] Kirton, Michael J. 2003. Adaption-innovation: In the Context of Diversity and Change. Psychology Press.

[2] Hipple, Jack, David Hardy, Steven A. Wilson, and James Michalski. 2001. “Can Corporate Innovation Champions Survive?” Chemical Innovation, November. http://pubs.acs.org/subscribe/archive/ci/31/i11/html/11hipple.html.