Adaptive or innovative: what kind of thinker are you?

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How you – and the people around you – think matters to the success of your project. There’s a reason why some people embrace certain changes while others resist them, or why an energising role for one person drains another.

So many factors in a project ride or die on your cognitive style more than skills, project controls or governance. People can be broadly divided into two camps when it comes to their thinking style: adaptive or innovative.

Adaptive thinkers

Adaptive thinkers tend to produce fewer ideas, but their ideas are well thought-through, relevant and safe for immediate use. They have a high success rate due to the thorough analysis that’s gone into them.

They enjoy routine and prefer work that requires precision, a methodical approach and attention to detail. Adaptive thinkers welcome change that improves the current paradigm or systems – i.e. ‘doing the same things better’.

They stick within the rules when solving problems and rarely challenge them. They seek consensus and look to maintain continuity and stability in groups. They welcome clarity of group norms and are prudent with authority.

Within organisations, they play an integral role in managing current systems, but in periods of radical change, struggle to regroup established roles.

Innovative thinkers

Innovative thinkers tend to produce a lot of ideas that are less thought-through. Some may be radical, possibly risky, but they accept the risk of failure for ideas – they’ll always have more of them.

They prefer varied work that avoids routine and enables tangential thinking. They like to look at the big picture and rarely obsess over the detail. They welcome change and are happy to break with the current paradigm or systems. They alter, break or challenge rules and norms to solve problems.

In settled groups they can be a catalyst. They’re comfortable with speaking up and are ready to criticise authority when necessary and appropriate.

In organisations, innovative thinkers play an integral role in managing radical change but struggle to apply themselves in times of stability.

How to manage thinking styles

These thinking styles sit on a sliding scale, measured by the Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI). Adaptive and innovative thinkers can break with their tendencies if motivated to do so. But people at different ends of the scale can inevitably clash if it’s not managed well.

“The KAI style range is over 100 points,” says Paul Erricker, director of The Project Academy and project management performance coach. “However, a difference of just 20 points between individuals or groups can produce predictable collaboration issues.”

He remembers an example from his coaching, where things were getting increasingly tense between a project leader and their technical team. The team were resisting the implementation of new technology that, as far as the project leader was concerned, was straightforward and low risk.

“What was radical to the technology team was seen as the industry norm to the leader. The KAI team coaching revealed that the leader was more innovative in KAI style, whereas all of the senior technical function team were medium-high adaptors. The KAI coaching ultimately eased this ‘style tension’, enabling the parties to better understand each other’s perspectives.”

That is the key to managing thinking styles; understanding your own and that of your team. “Both adaptors and innovators run the risk of perceiving their different behaviours as a matter of competence level, not personal thinking style,” says Ericker. “This is dangerous, as collaboration breakdown can quickly follow.

Adaptors may falsely judge innovators as sloppy, careless, reckless, inconsiderate of rules and group norms, and distracted from the task at hand. Innovators may falsely judge adaptors as stuck in the weeds, slow to embrace change, unnecessarily inflexible and closed to new ideas. But once project teams understand their style differences, the diversity of the team becomes respected and used to great advantage.”

Paul Ericker goes into KAI in more detail in the Spring edition of Project journal available free to all APM members.

Image: MaDedee/

Mark Rowland

Posted by Mark Rowland on 26th Jun 2019

About the Author

Mark Rowland is a senior writer on the Project editorial team. He has worked as a business journalist and editor for 15 years, and has won awards for his writing and editing. He has also worked in project and product management, overseeing the launch and continuous development of new websites and publications. Project is the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM).

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