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Change Work December 2008

Change for change's sake

Among the many assessment tools for human preferences - or "personality" - there's one that measures an individual's tendency to stay within the given boundaries of a problem versus their drive to break new ground.  Depending on our preconceptions, we might describe this as the narrow-minded / free-thinker metric.  Or should that be the safe-pair-of-hands / reckless cowboy divide?

In fact, it's a bit more subtle than that as the method's originator explains:

The Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory measures an individual's position within the adaptor-innovator spectrum.

Adaptors characteristically produce a sufficiency of ideas based closely on, but stretching, existing agreed definitions of the problem and likely solutions. They look at these in detail and proceed within the paradigm (theories policies, mores, practices) that is established in their organisations.  Much of their effort in effecting change is in improving and 'doing better' (which is the style that tends to dominate much of management, much of the time).

Innovators, by contrast, are more likely in the pursuit of change to reconstruct the problem, separating it from its enveloping accepted thought, paradigms and customary viewpoints, and emerge with much less expected, and probably less acceptable solutions.  They are less concerned with 'doing things better' and more with 'doing things differently'.
M J Kirton

I first came across the KAI Inventory in the context of introducing a documented quality system into a research and development operation.  Some people felt very strongly that the "bureaucracy" involved was stifling creativity and this led us to get involved with a business school research project into the factors affecting "creativity".  The KAI Inventory was used to establish the background for testing certain assertions and opinions about the effects of systems and procedures on creative thinking.

One interesting conclusion was that the Adaptors were more likely to suffer from the shortcomings of an imperfect system than the Innovators.  This arises because the former will always try to make it work (and to make it better) and so they take on that burden and feel bad when things don't work properly.  The Innovators on the other hand don't care either way!  They just do what they want - as usual.

This is somewhat reminiscent of the "meta-programs" I've talked about before.  It seems that the KAI Inventory doesn't correspond to any one of those thinking styles but rather combines several of them.  Towards - Away Motivation (Change Work March 07) is involved and so is Other - Self Reference (Change Work November 07).

But the closest parallel is the Options - Procedures meta-program.  People at one end of this spectrum prefer to have a system to follow - particularly to know what works - whereas those at the other end need lots of choices.  (I think I've mentioned before the guy who visited the Ikea furniture warehouse and then couldn't bear to go again.  Following the arrows on the floor conflicted with his options preference!)

Seen in this light, I think it's clear that there's nothing inherently better about being an Innovator (as defined by Kirton) which I suspect is what some of the critics of our quality system were assuming. It's just that each thinking style is best suited to particular roles and situations and not to others.  And it occurs to me that "innovation" tends to be regarded as something that's always desirable, but if it's driven by the desire for "doing things differently", without regard for "doing things better", then it might well be inappropriate at best.

It's also clear that Innovators and Adaptors are likely to rub each other up the wrong way.  As is so often the case, disputes about the best way to do things arise out of different ways of looking at the world.  As long as the people concerned see it as "right" and "wrong" they can't hope to reach a consensus.

On the other hand, accepting and capitalising on their differences is surely the way to come up with innovations that actually work!