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The word innovation is often used to describe successful things and successful people, but when the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, crosses our mind, we don’t typically think of him as the most innovative. Why is this?

Amazon, the small online bookstore Bezos started in 1994, was a novel idea when the Internet was beginning to take off. But Bezos was more interested in capitalizing on the growth of Internet sales than he was in selling books. He chose books because of their low price point, large selection, and continued worldwide demand. Now Amazon is a behemoth tech company with 156 million Amazon Prime subscribers worldwide, and often for many the first place to look for purchasing products. Successful, but not innovative.

Adaption vs. Innovation

Over forty-five years ago, Dr. Michael Kirton, a British psychologist, originated adaption-innovation theory, which helps us better understand the anatomy of an idea, by contrasting innovation with adaption. In general, an idea is more adaptive if the novelty centers on being paradigm consistent, and the novelty of an innovative idea centers on being paradigm breaking. To take this one step further, Kirton discovered we each have a preferred problem-solving style, being more adaptive or more innovative along a continuum, which is an aspect of our personality and measured using the KAI (Kirton’s Adaption-Innovation inventory).

Innovators are more likely to develop ideas which challenge the ‘system’, doing things ‘differently’ and prefer less structure; compared to more adaptive individuals, who are inclined to focus on improving existing systems with precision and detail, and feel enabled with more structure.

Whereas adaptors tend to manage change through the application of rules and via group consensus, innovators are less aware of rules and structure, and prefer to manage change more individualistically, with less concern of the team’s full support.

One may infer Bezos as having a more adaptive problem-solving style, and I’ll explain why, and how insight into your employees’ different styles can help HR and L&D build better leaders and more cohesive, stronger teams.

Bezos’ adaptive approach

Examining Bezos’ success as an entrepreneur it is worth noting his consistency in building one company, literally out of his garage and delivering books in his car. Of course, Bezos has purchased other companies, but this came after his success with Amazon. Bezos’ entrepreneurial approach can be contrasted with Elon Musk, who likely has a more innovative problem-solving style, known for starting Zip2, PayPal, and SpaceX, before arriving at Tesla. Both Musk and Bezos became rich in their own way, aligning with their problem-solving style; Musk with less need for structure and ready to move on to the next new business venture after he loses interest, and Bezos more adaptively tweaking structures within Amazon to build efficiency.

Bezos commonly touts the big ideas making Amazon successful such as low prices, fast delivery, and vast selection. These three ideas are not necessarily novel by themselves, but by Bezos’ fine tuning of logistics for quicker delivery, improving the categorisation of products for online shopping, and simplifying the customer’s shopping experience (e.g. one-click purchasing), he brought the three ideas together in a more adaptive approach to business.

In a Washington Post interview, right after buying the Washington Post, Bezos described his inventive process as based on teamwork and tinkering. Bezos further quipped that “quick” for him is measured in years. This aligns with a more adaptive problem-solving style as adaptors prefer more group consensus, and value building consensually agreed upon systems. Building a team to tinker on best ideas in an evolutionary approach can be slower than the more innovative individual who chooses to make decisions before gaining group consensus. Perhaps most importantly, Bezos has adaptively built a company structured around team-based decision making, and therefore can thrive without Bezos being in the room, not something Elon Musk may say confidently.

Adaptors and Innovators working together

We can learn from Bezos that more adaptive individuals can be incredibly creative and successful, approaching problems in their own style. Also, because adaptors and innovators are equally distributed in the world population, we can safely assume that Bezos’ team-based approach included adaptors and innovators working well together. Because there is no ideal problem-solving style, teams must be based on principles of mutual respect and diversity of thought, recognising everyone brings a unique perspective to the problem-solving process.

More innovative individuals are likely to dominate brainstorming sessions, especially in a video conference meeting, so providing opportunities for more adaptive individuals is beneficial to creating space for all ideas to be heard. For example, by giving permission to adaptors to share their thoughts during the session, or creating a structure that allows them to share ideas in their own way. One practice that can work well is placing adaptors and innovators in homogenous teams to develop ideas, and then bring the ideas from both groups to the table and evaluate the possibilities. It may be that the next big idea for your company is honing the logistics of the current system being used, not replacing it with a totally different one.

You may relate these styles back to your own personality as a leader or individuals in your team. Being aware of your own, and other’s problem-solving styles, can enhance team dynamics by improving respect for the diversity of thought each team member brings to the table. The complex problems of today require individuals with adaptive and innovative preferences working together, mitigating conflict appropriately, and maintaining focus on the shared goal – which could right now be conceptualising the next best thing to ‘Amazon’ or SpaceX.

    Dr. Curt Friedel is a Certificated Practitioner of KAI, Director of the Center for Cooperative Problem Solving at Virginia Tech University, and associate professor in the University's Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education. He has a teaching and research appointment with focus on problem solving and critical thinking as they apply to leadership development, the science of teams, and the management of change.

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