ISSN 1175-5407

Embracing Change – One Challenge at a Time

By Ed Bernacki, The Idea Factory

The theme of the 2009 HRINZ conference was Embracing Change. I presented a workshop on the theme of, “turning our conference ideas into goals and action plans after the event.” I wanted to explore the issue of how we going about designing our personal plans for change. To some context around this I asked participants, “On a typical Saturday morning, who makes a list of things to do for the weekend?” About one-third raised their hand. I then asked, “Who hates the thought that a list get made of the weekend ‘chores’?” A different group of people raised their hands, about one-third. The remaining third said that they sometimes make a list. This makes me curious. Why do some people need the structure of a list to know what to do while others find a list repressive? In terms of results, most people seem to have productive weekends regardless of how they plan them.

At the heart of all innovation is the ability of people to create insights that lead to ideas that solve the challenges they face. This could a management challenge or a scientific challenge. Those that prosper find a way to convert these insights into plans and results. If you looking for advice for shaping goals and plans you will quickly run into a dilemma that I believe needs to be explored. Every coach, consultant, author, advisory or boss has an approach. My observation that “this” approach is most often based on whatever model worked for them which they assume is also the best model for you. We then create planning tools and impose them on everyone else. Yet do all people in your organisation think alike?

This article will explore the issue of professional guidance that ignores the simple fact that people do not think alike yet we expect them to react in the same way. I will share some recent examples of this lack of insight by professionals and base it on extensive research into the area of cognitive diversity.

SMART Goal Setting

At the HRINZ, I listened to a speaker who talked of goal setting for success. This was one of many presentations I have seen by speakers and consultants who extol the virtues of “SMART” goals. They introduce the same basic goal setting model:

S – Specific and significant: Your goal or problem statement should be a clear and concise statement of what you want to create.

M – Measurable and meaningful: Making goals measurable helps you see your progress. You will see if you are moving in the right direction and how far you still need to go.

A – Action-oriented and achievable: Your goal should focus on actions that you can control. Some goals have outcomes you can’t directly control. Be clear about the actions you must take to be part of the process.

R – Realistic and relevant: Realistic is another word for achievable. This doesn’t mean that the goal needs to be easy. Good goals are relevant, meaningful and significant. They make a difference.

T – Time-bound and tangible: For goals that have a natural ending or result, establish a deadline to add a sense of urgency.

Even better, they say, “If you add milestones to measure weekly or monthly progress, this is highly motivating to drive yourself forward.” I came across an article which commented on a study by the Leadership IQ consultancy. It suggested that SMART goals do not correlate with success. Its study of 4,182 workers from 397 organisations found that the following eight factors predicted whether somebody's goals would help them achieve great things:

  • I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I achieve my goals.
  • I will have to learn new skills to achieve my assigned goals for this year.
  • My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.
  • I actively participated in creating my goals for this year.
  • I have access to any formal training that I will need to accomplish my goals.
  • My goals for this year will push me out of my comfort zone.
  • My goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides me (for example, customers or the community).
  • My goals are aligned with the organisation's top priorities for this year.

It concluded that for people to achieve great things, their goals require them to learn new skills and leave their comfort zone. That's the opposite of the achievable, realistic approach called for by adherents of the SMART goals framework. They suggest:

“The typical goal-setting processes companies have been using for decades are not helping employees achieve great things. And, in fact, the type of goal-setting we should be doing (assuming we actually want our employees to achieve great things) is pretty much the opposite of what organisations have been doing for the past few decades. If your people don't have to learn new skills and don't have to leave their comfort zone to achieve their goals, those goals probably won't drive greatness,” the researchers note in the report on their website.

They suggest goals have to capture our imagination. They must leap off the paper so that staff can feel how great it will be to achieve them. “And statistically, to achieve greatness, a goal also has to be bigger than ourselves. We have to identify whose lives will be enriched by our goals. And those goals had better be absolutely necessary (and also aligned with our organisation's top priorities) or they just aren't going to help employees achieve great things,” they stress. The authors then tell us to forget SMART goals and focus on HARD goals:

H - Heartfelt: My goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides me.

A - Animated: I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I achieve my goals.

R - Required: My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.

D - Difficult: I will have to learn new skills and leave my comfort zone to achieve my assigned goals for this year.

Unless you believe all people think alike, why do we make such assertions? In essence, these consultants are saying, “I am right. You are wrong.” I believe it is plainly dumb to think that any one approach will appeal to all people.

My position is that it’s not wrong to think in the style that is most comfortable for you. To fully engage a person on the challenges of your organisation, you must focus on how they think, solve problems and make decisions to notice the tools, models and frameworks that are best suited to their style of thinking.

One Size Does Not Fit All People

Some people question everything as this is the way they solve their challenges. Others see less need to challenge everything and prefer to accept many things as they are. The trouble is that most of us assume that others think like us. There is a vast amount of research in the field of thinking styles, generally referred to as cognitive diversity. Note that ‘thinking style’ is not related to the work on ‘learning styles’. Learning styles reflects how people take in new ideas. Thinking style is related to how people use what they learn to solve problems.

When I learned about cognitive diversity I was fascinated by the idea that people have different preferred ways of thinking that are consistent and predictable. My ‘aha’ moment happened when the implications of cognitive diversity explained why I got along with some managers and not with others. We had different thinking styles and therefore solved problems in ways that seemed foreign to the other.

I studied with Dr Kirton from the Occupational Research Centre in the UK ( His work reflects cognitive style rather than behaviourial differences. He developed a body of knowledge called “Adaption-Innovation Theory” that focuses on cognitive or problem solving style. Our individual style is likely best shown when we work on our own and can complete a project any way we choose. If you like, the way we think while in the privacy of our own head is the way we prefer to think. If you question most things, you will. If you accept most things as they are, you will. We make a distinction between our style of thinking versus our skills, knowledge and expertise. Our style of thinking will remain the same while our level of skill or education can easily change.

I will provide a brief overview of this diversity and provide one further example. At the very core of my argument are these observations:

  • Most people find it easy to work with people who think like them. They also find it more challenging to work with people who do not think like them.
  • If we do not manage these differences well, our ability to collaborate on teams will be ineffective and inefficient.
  • Most management recommendations cannot be applied broadly as they implicitly assume that people think alike. As such, recommendations cannot apply equally to those who question everything and those who do not.
  • Perhaps the most obvious observation of this lack of insight to consider how many of our meeting end up spending an hour or two hours to make a 15-minute decision.
  • Understanding Cognitive Style Differences

The first time we become aware of cognitive style is when we see a predictable difference between the ways that two people appear to have when solving similar problems. A person behaving persistently differently from you may be just intriguing or possibly irritating. These are tendencies that are stable that they are likely to persist even when it appears, at least to others, to be a disadvantage. It is curious that such disadvantages are noticeable less in us than in others.

Kirton created the Adaption – Innovation Theory to provide a framework to understand these issues. It is a continuum between two extremes in thinking style based on the need people have structure. As with many models, most people will be between these extremes (the distribution of cognitive diversity in wider populations follows a traditional bell curve). At the ends of the continuum are:

  • Adaptive style thinkers: They more readily anticipate threats from within the system (often devising, in good time, plans to economise, downsize, etc.).
  • Innovative style thinkers: They are more ready to anticipate events that might threaten from outside it, such as, the earlier signs of changing taste and markets or significant advances in technology not yet fully exploited.

In the original research by Dr Kirton, he noted that every manager tended not only to miss some cues that were picked up by others but also found their warnings irritating and distracting ‘to the real issues’ (eg, the ones they could see clearly). Often the cues that were missed or noted fell into a pattern, some managers missing cues coming from within the system and others missed those from outside. This suggested the influence of style differences rather than of skill. This is an important consideration as people tend to attribute differences in style (indeed, any differences between them and others) as “level” differences, that is experience, skills or education. He also noted that these are rarely serious topics of conversation for the managers; yet this knowledge is at the core of leadership.

According to Kirton, the confusion between level and style grows when such terms as ‘creativity and innovation’ or ‘change agent’ are used to imply that innovation alone will solve all problems and only a few of us can bring about change. Kirton writes, “Such terms are divisive, creating ‘resistors to change’ among those who think more clearly or among those who are made to feel excluded.”

To help understand these concepts, Kirton proposed a context of brain function. As with all models, this simplifies a complex reality. Yet it provides useful insights of the brain’s inter-related functions. Within this embracing structure, the key elements of the brain’s function have been entered as if they were departments of a business, devoted to its own survival.

  • Style appears in the ‘planning’ department.
  • It takes instruction from the boardroom – the department that decides the problems to be tackled and what kind of solution will satisfy the problem.
  • A third ‘backroom’, department of cognitive resources and processes develops through our learning. We then store all experiences on which the other two rely for past reliable information.

These elements of cognitive function are stable, characteristic influences on behaviour, which together with stable characteristics of behaviour make up an individual’s personality. As such, our ‘boardroom’ creates opportunities to solve problems which our “planning department” applies its style using the resources and processes to solve our challenges.

A vast amount of research has been undertaken to study these difference in an organisational context. The following chart lists the basic characteristics of these two styles at the extremes. The research also finds that most people will fall between these extremes. Saying this, this also means that about one-sixth will be at the more innovative end. They personal motto may be to ‘question everything’ as this is the best way to explore a problem. This also means that about one-sixth will be at the adaptive end of the continuum. They will wonder why it is necessary to question things and consider that this is a waste as it gets in the way of getting the job done.

Adaptive – Innovative Thinking Styles

Adaptive – Innovative Thinking Styles

Those with an adaptive style of thinking Those with an innovative style of thinking
How they see each other

Adaptors are seen by Innovators as sound, conforming,safe, predictable, inflexible, wedded to the system
and intolerant of ambiguity.

Innovators are seen by Adaptors as glamorous, exciting,
unsound, impractical, risky, abrasive, threatening the
established system and causing dissonance.
In solving problems

■ Adaptors tend to accept the problems as defined.
■ Early resolution of problems, limiting disruption and immediate increased efficiency are important to them.
■ They challenge rules rarely, cautiously, when assured of strong support and problem solving within consensus.
■ They are sensitive to people, maintain group cohesion and cooperation; can be slow to overhaul a rule.
Innovators tend to reject the generally accepted perception of problems and redefine them.
Their view of the problem may be hard to get across.
■ They seem less concerned with immediate efficiency, looking to possible long-term gains.
■ They often challenge rules. They may have little respect for past approaches.
■ They may appear insensitive to people when in pursuit of solutions,
so they often threaten group cohesion and cooperation
In generating solutions

Adaptors prefer to generate a few relevant and acceptable solutions aimed at doing things “better”.
These solutions are relatively easier to implement.
Innovators generally produce numerous ideas, some of which may not appear relevant to others.
Such Ideas often contain solutions which result in doing things “differently”.
In times of change
Adaptors are essential for ongoing functions, but in times of unexpected change
may have some difficulty moving out of their established role
Innovators are essential in times of change or crisis, but may have trouble applying
themselves to ongoing organisational demands.
Implications for advisors
Adaptive thinkers will prefer the structure of SMART goals that leads to practical sound structured solutions.
Innovative thinkers will prefer less structure to allow for exploration of an issue.
Too much structure feels repressive. It hinders the search of quality solutions.
The model of HARD goals would likely appeal to high innovators.
They may also value in Steve Shapario’s book, Goal Free Living.

We do a disservice to people if we ignore cognitive diversity. We should see these differences as a starting platform and then develop new ideas that are applied in practical ways to people who think in different ways. This is far better then having writers produce books or papers that reflect their personal style of seeing the world. In other words, their recommendations become a version of ‘one size – which is my size – fits all’ style of management. Ignoring this difference is much like a right-handed golf instructor encouraging people to play golf by only providing right-hand golf clubs. What if half of the group is left handed? Should we be critical of their inability to grasp the game of right-handed golf or do we recognize that we failed to see the obvious difference?

Managing adaption - innovation

Kirton studied how people in organisations solve problems and create change. He also created an assessment model, the KAI (Kirton Adaptor Innovator). Fewer people are found toward the extremes that he labelled as the adaptive style and the innovative style of thinking. The key to understand the design of this approach is to recognize that our personal assessment provides a useful snapshot of our style and how our style is relative to those we work with.

For example, someone with a mid range score will be seen as having two behaviours – depending on who is making the judgment. Imagine we assess three people, A, B and C. A is the high adaptor, B is in the mid range and C is the high innovator:

  • Person A – who is high adaptor – will view B with a mid score as behaving like an innovator.
  • Person C – who is high innovator – will view B as an adaptor as they are relative to their style of problem solving.

If B is a smart manager, he or she will recognize the implication of this: each person needs to be managed differently to allow them to maximize their effectiveness to the organisation. If A and C understand the issues highlighted in the chart, both will have a better way of managing their contribution and dealing with people who think very differently to them. A little understanding can help them from thinking the other is from some alien planet.

Recognizing the problem with management recommendations

Roger Martin, a high profile professor at the University of Toronto wrote an article for the June 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review, How Successful Leaders Think. He also wrote a book, The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking. He looked at the decision making process and conceived a model of two thinking styles, conventional and integrative. He refers to four stages in the decision making process and how each type of leader differs in their approach:

He suggests conventional thinkers…

  1. Focus only on obviously relevant features.
  2. Consider one-way linear relationships between variables, in which more of A produces more of B.
  3. Break problems into pieces and work on theme separately or sequentially.
  4. Make either or choices: settle for best available option.

He suggests integrative thinkers…

  1. Seek less obvious but potentially relevant factors.
  2. Consider multidimensional and non linear relationships among variables.
  3. See problems as a whole, examining how the parts fit together and how decisions affect one another.
  4. Creatively resolve tensions among opposing ideas: generate innovative outcomes.

He also says integrative is better for leaders of tomorrow. To quote: “When responding to problems or challenge leaders work through four steps. Those who are conventional thinkers seek simplicity along the way and are often forced to make unattractive trade offs. By contrast, integrative thinkers welcome complexity – even it means repeating one or more of these steps – and this allows them to craft innovative solutions.”

Martin says integrative thinking is ability everyone can hone. He also judges those who are not integrative thinkers: “Conventional thinking glosses over potential solutions and fosters the illusion that creative solutions don’t actually exist… Fundamentally, the convention thinker prefers to accept the world as it is, whereas the integrative thinkers welcome the challenge of shaping the world for the better.”

This is a highly abridged version of his article. His conclusions seem to resemble the distinctions between adaptive and innovative thinking styles. His notion of integrative thinking reflects those of innovators. I can only imagine how much more useful his effort could have been if he had used an underlying model of adaption – innovation. His comments on leadership thinking styles could have been put in context with 30 years of similar research. Then two sets of recommendations could have been provided:

  1. Recommendations to those who are more adaptive: perhaps framed around the idea of noticing when you are being conventional to question if the solution needs a more integrative approach.
  2. Recommendation to those who are more innovative: again recognizing the value of noticing both styles of problem solving which can be applied to solve the problem.

In other words, the recommendations for people who question everything should be different to those for people who do not see the need to question things as much. The lack of awareness can create a type of negative discrimination which works both ways. Adaptors are unfairly accused of being too structured and unable to change while innovators are labelled as undisciplined, unrealistic and sceptical.

The role of cognitive discrimination

I have long thought that we should discriminate more in terms of identifying the types of challenges we have and then recognizing the people with the right cognitive style to solve the problem most effectively. You could say, does the lie of the golf ball suggest a right handed golfer or a left handed golfer would be best to take the shot?

This more strategic use of this insight is to consider those problems which are best solved by those who are more adaptive and those who are more innovative. By being more discriminating in terms of the thinking style of people, we can begin to match the thinking style of people with the problems they are most capable (and most happy) to solve:

Those problems which need “better” solutions that bring structure and order to the problem are often most satisfying for those who are more adaptive. Adaptive thinkers will require a clear briefing on the problem and the process to use. Often they will want to even more clarification on the issues to ensure they understand all of the issues involved. Their first response is often, “Let’s see how we can solve this problem.”

Those problems which need totally “different” and new solutions to solve the problem are often most satisfying for those who are more innovative. Innovators thinkers will often resist any prescribed approaches and prefer to shape their own method to solve the problem. Their first response may be, “Why does this problem exist?”

The bottom line for managers and the advisors who forward advice in the form of books, presentations or consulting is to provide ideas and concepts that lead to decisions to make our organisations more effective. There is ample research that finds vast numbers of people in our organisations do not feel engaged in their job. To quote Dr Kirton: “Our problems have become so complex, and the penalty for not solving them so high, that we need to study the problem solver and the problems we need to solve.”

We must develop our skills to understand the ‘problem solver’ in more sophisticated ways. As such, a little cognitive discrimination to match the right thinking style for the right problem could greatly enhance your capacity to innovate by engaging people in a way that best suits their style of thinking. This may also lead to more staff engagement. That’s a bottom line difference.


Bernacki, E. (2008). Cognitive diversity: A case where informed discrimination may be useful. Human Recourses Magazine, June/July 2008, 30-32.
Kirton, M. J. (2003). Adaption-Innovation: In the Context of Diversity and Change, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-29851-2.
Kirton, M. J. (2000). Adaptors and Innovators: Styles of Creativity and Problem Solving, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-11662-7.

Click here to download a pdf copy of this article.

Ed Bernacki Bio: Ed Bernacki created The Idea Factory to help people and organisation develop a greater capacity to innovate. He has works with organizations through consulting, executive briefings and development workshops. He has published over 150 articles on themes on creativity and innovative thinking. He was the innovation columnist for the NBR, Bright magazine and Unlimited Magazine. Ed created the Conference Navigator Guide called, Wow! That’s a Great Idea! used by HRINZ for many of its annual conferences. He wrote, I am an Idea Factory! as a guide to enhancing team effectiveness for collaboration and innovation. He wrote Seven Rules for Designing More Innovative Conferences to help those planning conferences to focus on learning strategies. He uses the Kirton Adaption-Innovation assessment with many groups to help people collaborate more effectively.

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