Facilitating Problem-solving Processes for Adaptors and Innovators

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Facilitating Problem-solving Processes for Adaptors and Innovators

Jessie Ee and Oon-Seng Tan
National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


Adaptors and innovators are two creative styles defined in Kirton's adaption–innovation continuum. Adaptors choose to do things better, while innovators choose to do things differently. In this chapter, how adaptors and innovators are likely to perform in problem-solving tasks is discussed with implications for teachers and employers on their roles in facilitating problem solving for the two creative styles.


We often observe individual differences among problem solvers yet fail to understand the reason why some individuals have more difficulty relating to others, whether it is at home, in school, at the workplace, or even in the community. It is not merely a matter of individual personality traits but also differences in problem-solving styles. It is hoped that this chapter will shed some light on the behavioral characteristics of two creative styles—adaptors and innovators as defined by Kirton (1976)—in problem solving that will provide relevant implications for teachers and employers.

Who Are Adaptors and Innovators?

The adaption–innovation inventory was developed by Kirton for gauging whether a person's creative style is toward the adaptive or innovative end (Kirton, 1994). Kirton lists three facets that correspond to three factor traits: sufficiency of originality refers to a preference for producing a few implementable solutions to problems; rule governance concerns a social tendency to maintain workgroup cohesion by doing things in accepted ways; and efficiency refers to a bureaucratic concern with being exact, systematic, and disciplined. Bagozzi and Foxall (1995) found that adaptors tend to produce fewer implementable solutions to problems and are more compliant and bureaucratic within the workgroup. In contrast, innovators tend to be brimming with ideas, flout rules, and display little regard for bureaucratic details. Their study supports the results found by McHale and Flegg (1986) on the different working styles adopted by innovators and adaptors. Taken together, these findings indicate that innovators and adaptors operate on two ends of a continuum and, as a result, will tend to have difficulty working together. Adaptors do not like to behave like innovators, as it is against their nature to solve problems by bending rules, while innovators do not like to behave like adaptors, as it is against their nature to solve problems by following rules.

Both adaptors and innovators are equally creative, but they choose to express their creativity in different ways. Adaptors choose to do things better, while innovators choose to do things differently. Adaptors operate within a structured system associated with sufficiency of originality, efficiency, and rule–group conformity, whereas innovators break away from such existing structured system and show great interest in originality of ideas and less concern with efficiency and rule–group conformity. Furthermore, according to Kirton (1994), adaptors are likely to improve on the existing structure and favor staying in groups, maintaining cohesion by following the accepted ways, and solving problems in a disciplined, methodical, and predictable manner. They are unlike the innovators, who are risk takers and are likely to generate innovative yet practical ideas, thus altering the existing paradigm. Table 3.1 lists the differences between the two creative styles.

Characterized by precision, reliability, efficiency; seen as methodical and disciplined.Seen as thinking tangentially, approaching tasks from unsuspected angles; undisciplined, unpredictable.
Concerned with resolving problems rather than finding them.Tends to discover problems as well as less expected avenues of solution.
Seeks solutions to problems in tried and understood ways.Tends to question a problem's concomitant assumptions; manipulates problems.
Lessens problems through improvement and greater efficiency with maximum of continuity and stability.Is catalyst to settled groups, irreverent of their consensual views; seen as abrasive, creating dissonance.
Disciplined in solving problems with minimum of risk.In solving problems, seeks to explore untested areas that may be risky and jeopardize the situation.
More loyal to policy of consensus.Shows less respect for others' views, more abrasive in presenting solutions.
Seen as conforming and dependable.Seen as ingenious, unsound, impractical.
Does things better.Does things differently.
Liable to make goals of means.In pursuit of goals, liable to challenge accepted means.
Seems impervious to boredom and able to maintain high accuracy in longUsually unable to stay on detailed routine (system maintenance) work for longer than short bursts, quick to delegate routine tasks.
Is an authority within given structure.Tends to take control in unstructured situations.
Challenges rules rarely, cautiously, when assured of strong support and problem solving within consensus.Often challenges rules; may have little respect for past customs.
Has high self-doubt when system is challenged, reacts to criticism by closer outward conformity; vulnerable to social pressure and authority; compliant.Appears to have low self-doubt when generating ideas, not needing consensus to remain steadfast in face of opposition; less certain when placed in core of system.
Essential to the functioning of the institution all the time, but occasionally needs to be "dug out" of the current systems.Ideal for tackling unscheduled crises in the institution, or for helping to avoid them, if can be trusted by adaptors.
When collaborating with innovators, provides stability, order, and continuity to the partnership.When working with adaptors, provides task orientations and the break with past and accepted theory.
Sensitive to people, maintains group cohesion and cooperation; can be slow to overhaul a rule.Appears insensitive to people when in pursuit of solutions, hence often threatening group cohesion and cooperation.
Provides a safe base for the innovator's riskier operations.Provides the dynamics to bring about periodic radical change, without which institutions tend to become rigid.
Has a conscientious personality trait.Has an extroverted personality trait.
Tends to adopt ego avoidance orientation.Tends to adopt mastery goal orientation.

Difference in personality traits can affect creativity style. Research has shown that creative style is correlated with more than 30 different personality traits. Gelade (2002) demonstrated that many of these correlations could be understood within the framework of the five-factor model of personality. This model asserts that there are five basic personality traits, as follows. Neuroticism refers to individuals who are primarily characterized by a tendency to experience the states of negative affect. Extroversion refers to individuals who are assertive, active, cheerful, and high-spirited and who are happiest in the company of others. Openness to experience refers to individuals who are inquisitive and ready to contemplate radical ideas, new experiences, and unconventional values. Agreeableness refers to individuals who are friendly and sympathetic toward others and generally adopt an optimistic outlook in interpersonal matters. Finally, conscientiousness refers to individuals who are purposeful, disciplined, strong-willed, and reliable. It has been reported that the predominant correlates of creative style are personality indicators in the domains of openness to experience and extroversion for innovators and conscientiousness for adaptors (Gelade, 2002; Ee et al., 2007).

The NEO Personality Inventory–Revised (NEO PI-R) (Costa & McCrae, 1992) is a 240-statement questionnaire measure that is widely regarded as the standard representation of the five-factor model of personality. Gelade (1997), in examining the relationship between the five-factor model of personality and creativity, found that creative people break away from conformity and social norms and take pride in their work. In addition, they are independent and complex persons. He also noted that commercial creative studies reported considerably higher levels of neuroticism and openness to experience than professionals of a similar age working in occupations that are not evidently creative.

The willingness to take risk can also account for creative achievement. Dunbar (1997) noted the importance of risk taking in scientific discovery in the field of molecular biology. While there was variability across laboratories in their ability to achieve creative insights, the cognitive processes involved did not vary. However, a difference was shown in the scientists' willingness to take risk, their willingness to try a new procedure, examine an unexplained phenomenon, or propose a wild new theory to explain the data. He concluded that a higher willingness to take risk is related to creative achievement.

In the school context, students are motivated by learning goals to work hard in their studies (Ee, 1998). There are many kinds of goals, and different students adopt different learning goals. Students with mastery goals are intrinsically motivated to master a certain topic, unconcerned with how they will appear to significant others like parents, teachers, and friends. On the other hand, students adopting ego-approach goals in the learning situation are preoccupied with demonstrating their competence to significant others, and powerful extraneous forces such as evaluation pressure and social comparison suppress their employment of more creative forms of problem solving. In contrast, when a person involved in tasks adopts a mastery goal, the person engages in the activity in a more flexible manner (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Isen et al., 1987). Finally, individuals with an ego avoidance goal have a tendency to avoid difficult tasks for fear of failure. Research has revealed that innovators are mastery goal oriented, while adaptors are ego involved, especially ego avoidance (Ng, 2003; Ee et al., 2007).

In a study examining the relationships between creativity, risk orientations, achievement goals, and personality traits of tertiary students in Singapore, innovators scored significantly higher than adaptors in creativity, risk taking, mastery goal orientation, extroversion, and openness to experience. On the other hand, adaptors scored significantly higher on risk avoidance, ego approach, and conscientiousness. Furthermore, mastery goal orientation, risk taking, extroversion, and openness to experience were found to be predictors of innovative behavior, while risk avoidance goal, ego avoidance goal, and conscientiousness were predictors of adaptive behavior (Ee et al., 2007).

The preceding review suggests that these two creative styles of adaptor and innovator differ in many ways, including personality, risk-taking tendency, learning goals adopted, and even the manner they solve problems.

Processes Involved in Problem Solving

When faced with a problem, an individual is likely to engage in the processes of clarifying, defining and reframing, analyzing, as well as summarizing and synthesizing the problem. Thus, effective problem solving in the real world involves the harnessing of cognitive processes that include the following:

  1. "Planful" thinking. In attempting to understand the nature and demands of the problem, the problem solver has to take time to think and plan by listing the facts in the problem and what needs to be known and done.
  2. Generative thinking. Then, in attempting to make inferences from the facts and considering what needs to be known and done, the problem solver has to adopt an open mind with flexible thinking and come up with ideas by looking at the problem from various angles.
  3. Systematic thinking. After determining what needs to be done, the problem solver has to conduct research and collect data in an organized, thorough, and systematic manner.
  4. Analogical thinking. Having obtained the data, the problem solver needs to analyze them by looking for similarities, patterns, and parallels through lateral thinking.
  5. Systemic thinking. Finally, in addressing the problem, the problem solver needs to adopt holistic thinking while synthesizing the findings into coherent solutions to the problem.

Roles of Adaptors and Innovators in Problem-solving Processes

Because of differences in working style, it is easy for conflict to develop between the adaptors and innovators in a group (Kirton, 2000). By nature, adaptors dislike bending rules innovatively in order to solve problems, while innovators loathe being adaptive and following rules in handling problems. To prevent such conflict from occurring, it is important to highlight to adaptors and innovators that a good blend of creative styles is needed to solve problems creatively. This is because the creative problem-solving process requires periods of divergent ideation/innovation alternating with convergent evaluation/adaption, as well as the ability to judge when each is appropriate (Brophy, 1998; Runco, 1994). In problem-based learning (PBL), ideally, innovators should be called upon to contribute during the early stages when generative thinking is involved, as they are able to approach tasks from new angles and to think divergently. However, when systematic thinking and data synthesis are called for, adaptors may be preferred, as they are concerned with resolving problems and are reliable, efficient, methodical, and disciplined, unlike innovators.

Since creative styles are complementary, adaptors and innovators would do well to learn from each other. Adaptors can learn to set mastery goals like their innovative counterpart, so that they will be motivated to explore a variety of interesting alternatives in coming up with viable solutions. Similarly, innovators can learn to set ego or performance goals like their adaptive counterpart, so that they will stay focused on the task and keep the end goal in mind.

Finally, in developing a good blend of creative styles, both adaptors and innovators should banish egoistic thought such as "My way is right/better; your way is wrong/inferior." What is important is not the method per se but whether it solves the problem at hand. As the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once said, it doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white so long as it catches the mice.

Role of Teachers in Facilitating Problem-solving Processes

In facilitating problem-solving processes, it is advisable for teachers to provide cognitive coaching (Figure 3.1) to help students refrain from making unplanned and impulsive responses, sweeping generalizations, and unwarranted narrow perceptions. By repeatedly asking questions about the data obtained, teachers assist students to obtain a clear mental picture of the problem-solving process and guide them toward systematic and more thorough information gathering.

PBL processes and cognitive coaching involve getting the mind to make connections through reflection, articulation, and learning to see different perspectives. In PBL, the generation of cognitive connections is promoted through the use of problem scenarios and scaffolding (e.g., using templates and questions to guide students). After gathering relevant data, students have to analyze them by applying analytical thinking skills such as comparing, classifying, logical reasoning, and making inferences. Good analytical thinking involves not only logical reasoning but also knowing when to interpolate and extrapolate.

According to Manktelow (1999), human reasoning can be biased and flawed. A study has found that people have a tendency to give a "pseudodiagnostic" response based on their experience and belief, rather than a diagnostic response (Evans et al., 2002). Hence, there is a need to emphasize the learning of problem solving based on facts and reason. The PBL process and cognitive coaching can help students develop flexible, helicopter views by making connections with prior knowledge and experiences, real-world contexts, theories, others' perceptions, and new facts and ideas. Connectivity is enhanced through data collection and information elaboration and communication. And problem-solving competencies are developed and internalized through raising students' awareness of the different ways of thinking needed in resolving a problem.

Setting the Climate for Adaptors and Innovators

The patterns of relationships between creativity, risk taking, personality, and learning goals have major implications for nurturing mastery goal–oriented learners who will not only enjoy learning for learning's sake but are intrinsically self-regulated and creative individuals who adopt an extroverted and open-minded attitude toward their learning. The classroom climate must be one that inhibits the ego-approach or ego-avoidance orientation in our students, or these students may also develop neurotic personality traits and a risk-avoidance orientation, which may not be conducive to their learning.

The findings presented here suggest that, to nurture creative, enthusiastic, and vivacious learners who enjoy learning, educators should build learning environments that facilitate task involvement while inhibiting ego involvement in students. Some of the current educational policies, such as national primary school streaming and national secondary school ranking, contribute to an extremely stressful learning environment in which incessant pressure is applied in a top-down fashion: Principals are pressured by the competitive system of education to raise the performance of their schools. They then pressure their teachers to deliver high grades in their classes. The teachers in turn pressure their students to do well in tests and examinations. In this, they are joined by the students' parents, who push their children to work hard so that they will not end up in a slower stream or a lower-ranking school. Ryan and Guardia (1999) showed that an excessive focus on competitive evaluation would undermine the intrinsic value attached to learning, decrease interest in the topic being studied, as well as result in lower-quality learning and creativity.

An experimental study by Reeve and Deci (1996) explored the possibility that winning a competition could be experienced either as controlling (if the interpersonal context emphasized the importance of beating one's opponent) or as informational (if the interpersonal context did not pressure one to win). They found, as predicted, that both groups of winners—those in the nonpressured context and those pressured to win—felt highly competent relative to the losers. However, compared with the nonpressured winners, the pressured winners showed a marked reduction in perceived self-determination, which in turn undermined their intrinsic motivation in performing the task. The researchers note that "winning a competition may not undermine intrinsic motivation if the interpersonal context does not add undue pressure to win. Unfortunately, it seems that the unyielding focus of our society on winning—whether in athletic competition or school performance, for example—may be creating a pressuring context that can have quite negative effects on individuals' experience and motivation" (p. 32).

Thus, teachers who attempt to inculcate creativity in their students should bear in mind that creativity is a qualitative construct—each creative style has its own strengths and weaknesses. As adaptors and innovators subscribe to different values, teachers may need to develop a good blend of creative styles in the classroom.

In Conclusion

It would be ideal if every educator is committed to the mission of nurturing creative, passionate, and spirited learners who are infused with the joy of learning, rather than competitive, conforming, and wary learners who are emotionally numbed by their fear of learning. We will do well to remember these words of Albert Einstein, the creator par excellence, who saw the deleterious effects of a competitive system of education that pressured students to do well. In his autobiography, Einstein wrote, "It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry, for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom. Without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail" (as quoted in Ng, 2001, p. 97). To conclude, our task as educators is to close the discernible gap that presently exists between our espoused theory (what we say we will do) and our theory-in-use (what we actually do). This can only occur when we muster the will to free our students to be creative.


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