Kirton's Adaptation-Innovation Theory: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Adaptation-innovation theory asserts that different people approach challenges and problem-solving in different ways. In this lesson, you'll learn more about this theory and the adaptors and innovators that it comprises.

Innovator or Adaptor?

Have you ever wondered where some of history's most brilliant minds rank in terms of their adaptive mindset? Albert Einstein was an innovator, the father of modern physics. Thomas Edison was an adaptor, using ideas discovered by others and thoroughly fleshing them out. Even Abraham Lincoln could be labeled as, most likely, an innovator. He had a patent for a flotation device that would lift a riverboat when it got stuck on a sand bar.

Do you see yourself as an innovator or adaptor? Not sure how to decide or what criteria is used? Consider this question: Do you get annoyed with the details of a job? (If you said ''no,'' you might be an adaptor). Do you have a ton of ideas and no way to complete them all? (If you said ''yes,'' you might be an innovator.)

OK, maybe that's not the most sophisticated way to figure things out. Thankfully, Dr. Michael Kirton took the guesswork out of it when he created his adaptation-innovation theory in 1976, giving businesses, for example, a reliable inventory for assessing employees. He believed that this information could help teams become stronger and more productive. Let's take a closer look.

Kirton's Adaptation-Innovation Theory

Kirton's adaptation-innovation theory provides an explanation to our inherent differences based on how we solve problems and think creatively. Under Kirton's theory, he asserts that each of us is unique and can be scored along a continuum scale from ''highly adaptive'' to ''highly innovative.'' Understanding this is like getting to know other people better; once you know how people think and behave, you're better able to collaborate with them and avoid unnecessary conflicts.

The theory is based on two different types of individuals: adaptors and innovators.


Kirton identified adaptors as people who are, perhaps, comfortable with how things are being done but strive to do those things better. For example, an adaptor might be an employee who is tasked with uploading marketing videos to a company website. Instead of uploading and converting multiple versions, however, she might opt to upload a single video and repurpose it across multiple channels. This cuts down the amount of time she's spending by following a more efficient process.

As the theory applies to problem-solving, adaptors are those who prefer more structure. They would rather solve problems with tried and true methods. They generally are adept at following rules without questioning and maintain a goal of helping the whole group get along.


On the other hand, innovators are different both in their mindset and their work processes. They question things and may try to reform a work process from its foundations. For example, instead of modifying its existing shipping options for customers who make purchases online, a innovative company (or team inside that company) might opt to launch an entirely new and unique delivery system by using drones.

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