Project Management Institute

Diversity that matters



QUESTION: We hear a lot about diversity, but exactly how can diversity be managed to make it an asset to a team project?

Few ideas have generated as much benefit—and as much nonsense—as the concept of diversity. The benefits are clear: Different backgrounds can bring new perspective to a project, spurring creativity and providing equal opportunity for all.

But diversity has costs as well, and those often are downplayed. Dissimilar backgrounds can generate miscommunication, for example, and it is not uncommon to assemble project teams based more on demographic diversity than on what members can offer in terms of problem solving styles.

Dr. Michael Kirton has devoted decades to understanding the diverse ways in which people solve problems. From his base in Hertfordshire, U.K., Dr. Kirton travels the world spreading his “Theory of Adaption-Innovation,” and the lessons of his A-I theory apply directly to every project manager.

Dr. Kirton's view is that everyone can be placed on a continuum, or a bell curve, in the way they solve problems. At the far left are Adaptors (hence the term “adaption” rather than adaptation), who seek solutions in tested, proven ways. Adaptors use approaches that have worked before, modifying them to fit the new task. Characterized by reliability, steadiness and efficiency, Adaptors accept authority and work within the rules. They are creative (Dr. Kirton contends that everyone is) but within boundaries. Put another way, Adaptors can color, but they color within the lines.

Their polar opposites are Innovators, who inhabit the far right regions of our bell curve. If Adaptors color within the lines, Innovators rarely even acknowledge that the lines exist. They see rules as constraints to be broken and approach problems from unexpected angles. They can be seen as eccentric, unsound, impractical—the exact opposite of their Adaptor brethren.

There are no pure Adaptors or Innovators; everyone has characteristics of each style. But Dr. Kirton has shown that substantial variation exists in problem-solving style, and that variation is the boon—and the bane—of every project manager's existence.

ANSWER: When building your project team, take problem-solving styles into consideration.

So which is better, a team of Adaptors or one chock-full of Innovators? “We all need an understanding of context in order to problem solve,” Dr. Kirton says. Or, in the words of the Universal Management Answer, “It all depends.” And what it depends on is the nature of the project.

Let's say yours is an evolutionary project. You're developing the fifth-generation Acceleron coupe, which, of course will look a lot like the fourth-generation Acceleron coupe with different lines, better fuel economy, quicker acceleration time, but essentially, it's the same car. Here, Adaptors are likely to be more valuable: They know cars, technologies and what the market wants. An extreme Innovator will want to spend time discussing why the world needs cars at all since Star Trek's “beam me up, Scotty” technology could be right around the corner. An interesting conversation, maybe, but unlikely to move the group any closer to a new car ready to go to market.

But if your project has no rules or no boundaries, a team of Innovators offers your best chance. In 1968, for example, the U.S.S. Scorpion disappeared between Spain and its home port in Virginia. Nuclear subs don't file the undersea equivalent of flight plans; their random movements are essential to their survival. Nor do they make regular position reports. So the Navy could only assume that the Scorpion had sunk, somewhere, probably, in the North Atlantic.

This was a classic problem for the Innovators because no one had ever done this before. An eclectic team of mathematicians, oceanographers, sub captains, engineers and others met to discuss what routes other captains might take and what predispositions the Scorpion's captain had shown on other voyages. This project—later described as “inspired guessing”—led to the discovery of the Scorpion's wreckage a few months later.

Dr. Kirton's 32-item inventory assessing a person's style makes assembling such a team possible. Another reason to know the preferred style of your team members: Individuals with markedly different scores on the inventory tend to work poorly together. People who differ by just 10 points (ranging from 32 for a perfect Adaptor to 160 for a pure Innovator, with a mean of about 96) will show apparent disconnects, and a gap of 20 points between two team members will result in significant conflicts and misunderstandings.

Because diversity carries with it certain costs, it's reasonable to demand that it generate benefits for your project as well. There are many certified Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory consultants around the world. For more on Dr. Michael Kirton's Adaption-Innovation Theory, go to or contact him at [email protected]. PM

Do you have a practical, project management technique-oriented question for PM Network? Write a 50-words-or-less description of your workplace situation and the issue you'd like addressed, and e-mail the question to [email protected]. PM Network reserves the right to edit submissions for clarity and length. All submissions should include name and contact information for verification purposes.

Bud Baker, Ph.D., is professor and chair, Department of Management, and associate dean for Graduate, International and Community Programs of the Raj Soin College of Business at Wright State University.


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