Kirton's Adaptation-Innovation Theory describes a continuum of cognitive styles and approaches to problem-solving, from high adaptation to high innovation.

Kirton's Adaptation-Innovation Theory (KAI)

Kirton's Adaptation-Innovation Theory describes a continuum of cognitive styles and approaches to problem-solving, from high adaptation to high innovation.


Kirton, Cognition and Creativity

Michael Kirton is a cognitive psychologist and author, who, in 1976 (and further expanded on in 2003) outlined a theory of cognition by which one could identify his or her favoured approach to problem-solving. 

He suggested that all individuals lie on a creativity continuum (below) between high adaptation and high innovation. Individuals at both ends of the continuum are creative, just in a different way. 

Those with high adaptation prefer to find solutions using established systems, whereas those with high innovation prefer to go beyond the current norms to find new and untested answers to problems. 


KAI Continuum

Each person's individual cognitive style is partly innate and partly sculpted by their experiences throughout their lifetime. In Kirton's view, understanding the different cognitive styles present within a business would greatly enhance organisational cultures which embraced change and diversity. 


Adaptors and Innovators

There are some clear and obvious differences between individuals at either end of Kirton's continuum. A true Innovator would prefer to be challenged by very different problems to a true Adaptor, and both would almost always come up with very different solutions.


Adaptors desire to do things better; Innovators seek to do things differently.


Adaptors have a preference for well-established organisational structures, systems and processes; whereas Innovators like to break the mould, working outside the current restraints to find new and untested solutions.

For this reason, Innovators are often more creative in high pressure, uncertain, or unexpected situations; whilst Adaptors find themselves excelling in finding ways to complete everyday tasks and overcome predictable challenges, improving on the methods that have been used in the past.

Innovators are the brainstormers, unwilling to accept the problem as it is initially laid out to them. Adaptors are less impulsive and more defined, narrowing the options down a few novel ideas whose success could be supported by evidence.

Adaptors are the agents of stability and progress, often found in managerial or defined leadership roles; Innovators are agents of change and reactiveness, often found in visionary leadership positions.

A summary of the two ends of the continuum can be found below:


KAI Traits

Whilst developing his theory, Kirton also created an inventory (the Kirton Adaptation-Innovation Inventory) which can be used to identify one's position along the continuum. The individual scores themselves against 32 distinct personality traits to find their preferred cognitive style. A large sample of individuals within a population generally finds itself normally distributed across the centre of the continuum, with a balance of people towards the Adaptation and Innovation ends. 

Organisational Implications

The general leadership shift since Kirton first developed the Adaptation-Innovation model has seen organisations begin to move from valuing the Adaptor more during the 1970s and 1980s, to now placing great emphasis on finding and developing Innovators. Kirton himself emphasised greatly that these individuals were both creative within their own cognitive styles, and that no style was better than another. In fact, be he believed that both Adaptors and Innovators were required to solve complex problems.

He pushed for organisations to value both greatly, and to also value individuals who he called bridges who could link the skills of both Adaptors and Innovators for the optimal effect. This is not necessarily a fixed individual, nor are they a leader; a bridge is instead an assigned task or role undertaken by specific individuals. However, it is easier for someone to assume this bridging role should their particular position on the continuum be intermediate between an Adaptor and an Innovator.

Understanding each other's cognitive styles and having an individual who can encourage collaboration between different personalities is crucial to resolving conflict in problem-solving situations and building creativity. By developing diversity in cognitive style and approach, one can reap the benefits of additional stances with regards to initiating and managing change. In addition, individuals can be matched to roles, tasks and projects which suit their particular cognitive style and skill-set, for optimal results.