[Innovators Toolkit] Cognitive Style

Technique 11 – Cognitive Style

Leverage the diversity of your exploiters and explorers.

Cognitive style is an individual’s preferred approach for solving problems and can be measured along a continuum from adaptive to innovative. While adaptors are more prone to improve the current system, innovators are critical of the current system, choosing to create entirely new products, processes, models, and solutions.

To run an innovation project from end to end, you always need the right mix of both adaptors and innovators—not just one type of person or the other, and not some set ratio of adaptors to innovators for all projects.

When all team members understand their own cognitive style, as well as the styles of other team members, the process of working together becomes much smoother and more productive—and you avoid unnecessary conflicts and delays. For example, a more adaptive team member who would ordinarily be frustrated with a more innovative team leader can, instead, understand the differences and use them to the team’s advantage.


Several factors affect a team’s chemistry and success with innovation. Motivation is one factor, and there are known approaches for managing this. Level is another success factor, and it refers to (a) a person’s current knowledge and/or skill and (b) a person’s potential capacity for problem solving. We also have sound and established instruments (tests and IQ measurements, for example) for assessing these dimensions. Then there are resources—such as materials, money, machines, and tools—and these are typically well-known.

What’s not typically known or understood is the critical aspect of team members’ respective cognitive styles. Cognitive style researchers have proven that people who are more adaptive prefer to accept and work within the given paradigm; those who are more innovative prefer to solve problems by looking at them from new angles and perspectives (see exhibits below).

Adaptors and innovators have different approaches to solving problems.

Thomas Edison borrowed new paradigms discovered by others and preferred to perfect them methodically, systematically and in a precise manner. Edison was more of an adaptor.

Albert Einstein questioned the existing Newtonian paradigm, which enabled him to discover the Theory of Relativity. Einstein was more of an innovator than an adaptor.

It’s also important to realize the relationship between preferred style and behavior. Actual behavior is a combination of preferred style and learned coping behavior. If you have a more adaptive style and you have to perform tasks that have few guidelines or established structures, you will need to resort to coping behavior, and this will create stress in the long-term. The converse is also true.

All innovation projects have steps that are adaptive and others that are innovative in nature. Therefore, you need a collaborative team with the appropriate motive, resources, cognitive level, and diversity of cognitive style. But research shows that people with differing cognitive styles struggle to get along—creating communication, trust and productivity issues. Therefore, make sure team members know and understand each other’s cognitive styles so they can leverage each other’s advantages and supplement each other’s disadvantages at all stages of the innovation project.


Scenario: Let’s assume you’re assigned to a new cross-functional team tasked with developing a car that consumes carbon monoxide instead of producing it. Given the magnitude of the breakthrough innovation required, it’s advisable to select team members with diverse backgrounds, a variety of different skills, and a range of different cognitive styles.

Step 1: Identify Potential Team Members

Choose team members with a variety of technical and nontechnical skills, experience, and motivation related to the specific job statement or JTBD (see Jobs To Be Done, Technique 1).

Step 2: Examine the Cognitive Style of Each Team Member

To determine the best fit for the task at hand, given the pool of potential candidates, be aware of the cognitive style that each team member brings to the task. You can do this in one of two ways:

1. Ask the following questions about the team members (in comparison to a reference person):

  • Does this person tend to question established rules, assumptions, and structures?
  • Does this person become frustrated or annoyed with details?
  • Does this person tend to have a steady stream of ideas without too much concern about how they’re implemented?

If the answers to the above questions are yes, then this person is more innovative than adaptive. If the answers are no, then the person is more adaptive.

2. If you want a more sophisticated way to determine cognitive style, use the Kirton Adaption-Innovation (KAI) Inventory, a highly validated and reliable psychometric instrument developed by psychologist Dr. Michael Kirton. Available at www.kaicentre.com, the KAI inventory works like this:

An individual responds to a series of 33 statements by marking responses on a range from very easy to very hard.

The KAI instrument is then scored by a certified facilitator to determine a primary KAI score and three KAI subscores. Primary KAI scores range on a normally distributed numerical scale from 32 (most adaptive) to 160 (most innovative), with a mean of 96. However, the observed range from worldwide data is 45 to 145 with a mean of 95. All scores are relative; there are no pure adaptors or pure innovators, so we often use the terms more adaptive and more innovative to describe the relationship between two people.

A KAI facilitator then provides feedback to the individuals about the KAI instrument and highlights key insights about the scoring.

The group is divided into smaller teams of participants with similar KAI scores; each team spends 15 minutes developing solutions to a specific problem that will be reported back to the group.

Each team delivers a brief report summarizing their approach and the solutions generated.

The facilitator highlights the differences between the different teams’ styles, showing how the more adaptive team’s approach differs from the more innovative team’s approach.

Cognitive Style Insights

1. General

  • All people are creative and solve problems.
  • Cognitive style (adaptive or innovative) is different and unrelated to cognitive level(knowledge and capacity).
  • There is no one best cognitive style.
  • One’s preferred cognitive style is genetically determined and stable over a lifetime.
  • A group needs both adaptors and innovators to be effective over time.
  • Forcing someone to work outside their preferred style (comfort zone) will cause stress; in the short-term this might be okay, but in the long-term it will lead to a breakdown in communication and reduction in productivity.

Don’t mistake poor performance to always be a symptom of low problem-solving level or motivation. Instead of jumping to replace these team members, examine how you might reassign tasks to achieve better alignment with their preferred cognitive styles.

2. Adaptors

  • The more adaptive tend to focus on improving the current system, even by leaps and bounds, within the problem definition or paradigm.
  • Adaptors seek solutions in tried and understood ways. Adaptors are seen as precise, reliable, and methodical. They look at the problem and want to solve it efficiently.
  • High adaptors tend to rarely challenge the rules and usually only do so when assured of support.
  • Adaptors produce fewer ideas that are more manageable, relevant, sound, and safe for immediate use. Expect a high success rate from these ideas.

3. Innovators

  • The more innovative tend to focus on doing things differently, often operating outside the parameters of the problem definition or current paradigm.
  • Innovators are expected to question the assumptions behind the problem at hand, and will often manipulate and redefine it. They are seen by adaptors as undisciplined and prone to tangential thinking.
  • Innovators tend to view rules and structures as limiting or hindering progress, and they want to solve problems in novel ways.
  • High innovators produce many blue-sky ideas that they consider exciting, and they tolerate high idea failure rates.

4. Teamwork and Collaboration

Adaptors execute details very well, according to plans; innovators often move forward with execution despite the details and in the absence of any substantive plans.

The larger the gap between people’s cognitive styles, the harder it will be to collaborate, communicate, and solve problems.

A bridger is a person who helps facilitate communication and teamwork between high adaptors and high innovators (see exhibit).

Staffing innovation teams is a fluid activity that depends on the extent and nature of change required for any given project. It’s also fluid in the sense that different stages of the innovation project require different people with different positions, skills, knowledge, and cognitive styles.


Kirton, M. J. Adaption-Innovation: In the Context of Diversity and Change. New York: Routledge, 2003.


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