News and Comment

Striking the right balance between innovative and adaptive leadership

Thursday 21 October 2010


The current financial and political climate calls for genuine transformation, and for leaders who are able to encourage and harness different styles of thinking. Traditional salami-slicing of budgets cannot yield the required level of savings; radical thinking is required. But where does this leave managers and leaders who naturally adopt a more adaptive style? OPM’s Richard Field explores.

‘Innovative’ and ‘adaptive’ preferences

The work of Dr Michael Kirton suggests that individuals differ in their thinking, either tending towards adapting what already exists or innovating something different. Relatively adaptive leaders seek solutions to problems in tried and tested ways, generating ideas within the prevailing paradigm. Leaders who are, relatively speaking, on the ‘innovative’ end of the spectrum challenge assumptions and manipulate or reframe problems, generating a greater number and diversity of ideas.

This is a period of unprecedented change for public services, some of which is innovative, the rest a case of making adaptations on a grand scale. Views on what constitutes innovation vary; in my view an authority that switches from traditional bricks and mortar services to providing work and business opportunities for people recovering from strokes and brain injury is potentially innovative, at least for this authority. Choosing to sell off remaining homes for older people having sold one or two previously is large-scale adaption; it does not require a shift in thinking or involve anything new, simply a repetition and augmenting of previous actions.

For those leaders comfortable with uncertainty, complexity and paradox this is a time of unparalleled opportunity, a time for imagining, innovation and experimentation. For leaders who function best in conditions of certainty and stability this is a less comfortable time. Much of what has been developed over the last ten years is being reduced or dismantled. Established services, relationships and processes are transforming at a speed that allows little time for careful thought, planning or coordination.

Being naturally adaptive or innovative is neither a good or bad thing: particular contexts and circumstances call for relatively more adaptive or innovative responses. While individual leaders often face contexts that require a response that does not match their thinking style, management teams usually have a mix of styles and should be better equipped to lead in a diversity of situations. Successful responses to the current context will depend on the sense leaders make of their environment, their ability to correctly diagnose whether an innovative or adaptive response is required, thinking style diversity within the management team and the ability of those involved to harness diversity and adapt their behaviour.

Getting the mix right: ignore adaptive thinking at your peril

Both innovative and adaptive styles of thinking are valuable and management teams benefit from a mix, the balance of which will need to shift over time. While the current emphasis on thinking outside the paradigm makes innovation popular, ignoring adaptors is a mistake as they can make a significant contribution, particularly in shaping and implementing ideas. More important, however, is the contribution adaptive thinkers can make post-transformation in the quest for high performance, which at this point is more likely to be achieved via sustained continuous improvement.

As a user of adaptor innovator theory for many years I’ve found the following questions to be particularly helpful for senior public service leaders to ask top teams:

  • What is the mix of adaptors and innovators in your leadership team(s)?
  • What balance of adaptive and innovative thinking is needed for future effectiveness?
  • Does the current balance need to shift?
  • What changes need to be made to the wider leadership system to support the future balance?
  • Do you and your colleagues possess the ability to make the necessary shift and harness thinking diversity?

With the appropriate mix of innovators and adaptors an organisation should be equipped both to break out of the existing paradigm and make the new paradigm work. At present innovators are leading in many organisations and there is a need to ensure that those motivated to do things better rather than differently are engaged. Their time is coming, and soon.