The Innovator’s DNA

"…one’s ability to generate innovative ideas is not merely a function of the mind, but also a function of behaviors."

- The Innovator’s DNA, page 3

Innovation and creativity – where these very human forces come from and how they can be harnessed – are not unfathomable mysteries. They also are not God-given traits or reserved for the genetically superior or chosen few. There really is no need to be perplexed by them or view them with deferential and distant eyes.

There is a rich body of serious work that has isolated, compiled, and exhaustively analyzed their components and what makes them tick. These studies have found common patterns and procedures which can make these powerful approaches readily available to ALL of us. We merely have to have the courage and the will to embrace them.

The Innovator’s DNA by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen is the product of an eight year collaborative study that interviewed hundreds of inventors of revolutionary products and services, founders of game changing companies, CEOs who successfully ignited innovation in existing companies and surveyed over 5,000 executives in more than 75 countries. This book delivers the definitive, not-so-secret sauce of how an individual, a team or company can become more creative and innovative. To underline the importance of this recipe, the researchers also tie their findings on corporate innovation activity to a firm’s market value and calculate how a firm’s tangible commitment to innovation development creates an innovation premium (investors voting with their wallets) above and beyond the company’s cash flow and current book value.


The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Intensity beyond the normal

"When engaged in consistently, these actions – questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting – triggered associational thinking to deliver new businesses, products, services, and/or processes."
- The Innovators DNA, page 3

To “think different”, innovators have to “act different”. Per their exhaustive research, the authors determined that the broad range of innovators that they interviewed and studied did not differ significantly on personality traits or psychometric measures from typical business executives. What they discovered, though, were distinct and consistent “patterns of action”.  Successful innovators, driven by a deep sense of curiosity on all things, systematically:

  • asked tough and probing questions
  • observed the world around them intently
  • networked with very diverse people across industry and culture
  • experimented readily, testing out ideas and approaches

They simply were much more likely to use these behavioral skills (also called discovery skills by the authors) compared to typical executives;  spending on average 50% more time on these activities.  Successful innovators also shared the cognitive ability of associational thinking, “linking together ideas that aren’t obviously related to produce original ideas”.

The critical insights of the research clearly demonstrated that it was the combination of these five behaviors and skills that were necessary to create the code for generating innovative business ideas: associational thinking, best triggered and fueled by the behavioral skills of questioning, observing, networking and experimenting, lead to innovation. This alignment of skills, which can be learned and practiced, is what the researchers call the innovator’s DNA.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Create your own personal TED conference in your head

"The best predictor of excellent associating skills was how often people engaged in the other discovery skills."
- The Innovators DNA, page 49

TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) conferences’ greatest value comes from its ability to attract and drive an inspired diversity of participants and presentations. Per the book’s research, successful innovators literally construct a TED in their heads through constantly searching out an intentional depth and diversity of life experiences. This active pursuit of a wide band of new information, ideas and perspectives are the key catalysts for their creative associations.  Consider mathematically: as the number of different building-block ideas in our heads grows linearly, the potential ways to recombine those ideas grows even faster, or geometrically.  Think Lego pieces.

The Innovator’s DNA devotes individual chapters on each of the major discovery skills of questioning, observing, networking, experimenting and associational thinking. The researchers illustrate how we, like successful innovators, can consistently practice these skills and hone them into guiding habits that extract a formidable range of ideas and information.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Associating: Connect the unconnected

"Creativity is connecting things."
- Steve Jobs, quoted in The Innovators DNA, page 41

It is inescapable. Almost all studies on innovation and creativity reinforce the simple definition provided above by Steve Jobs. As well, Einstein once called “combinatorial play” the “essential feature in productive thought”. The research in this book further verifies that successful innovators share and continuously develop this cognitive skill which is “at the core of the innovator’s DNA”.

The authors provide a number of tips on how innovators successfully develop their associating skills. These all represent exercises that literally force you out of habitual thinking patterns:

1. Practice forcing associations on challenges by choosing random entries you find in product catalogues, magazine articles or Wikipedia entries.
2. Take on the persona of a different company or respected leader. How would Google or Steve Jobs handle this challenge?
3. Use the SCAMPER exercise of alternatingly using Substitution, Combination, Adaptation, Magnifying/minimizing/modifying, Putting ideas to other uses, Elimination, and Reversal/rearrangement.
4. Build your own curiosity box of odd, interesting objects as they often help in triggering new associations. IDEO (the world’s most successful design firm and innovation consultancy) encourages their people to collect and openly display items in their work areas that refer back to previous project successes, inspirations, or of general interest to cross-fertilize team members.
5. Generate metaphors or analogies with your products or services as “each analogy holds the potential for seeing things from an uncommon perspective”.

Shrouding something in mystery adds to its allure but distances it from wide-scale acceptance and practical usefulness. Such is the world of creativity and innovation. The more we demystify these personal and business forces, the more we can understand, apply and create new solutions to our challenges.

The Innovator’s DNA thoroughly documents how innovation and creativity are a function of conscious choices and behaviors. The researchers detail and illustrate the five skills needed to become disruptive innovators and emphasize that all five of these elements can be learned, developed and applied by anyone in any business in any industry. They call on us all to take innovation leadership by reclaiming our youthful curiosity and start initiating the processes that drive people to not be afraid to create and share new ideas. Let us all heed the call. The Innovator’s DNA provides the guidebook based on the successes of innovators who came before us.

“…roughly two-thirds of our innovation skills still come through learning – first from understanding the skill, then practicing it, and ultimately gaining confidence in our capacity to create”.

How do you use techniques, processes, tools, etc. to push you and your company to be more creative and innovative?

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Bill Hortz

ABOUT Bill Hortz

I’m an independent consultant and business catalyst focused on the game-changing nature of strategic thinking, innovation creation and strategic account management...
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