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Learning to Innovate

November 25, 2011


Zoe McKay writes, “Some people are born innovators. Others can become innovators, providing they follow some simple guidelines. That’s the thesis of ‘The Innovator’s DNA,’ just published by Harvard Business Press, by Hal Gregersen, INSEAD Associate Professor of Leadership, with Jeffrey H. Dyer of Brigham Young University and Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School.” [“Innovator’s DNA: Some Are Born, Others Can Learn,” Forbes, 21 July 2011] I find the subject of innovation to be fascinating. I certainly agree with the notion that some people are born innovators. They have a gift — like some people have a gift for music or art. It’s my belief that the born innovators are the ones that make the biggest contributions; however, just like less gifted people can learn to play instruments or paint, it makes sense that less gifted people can also learn to innovate. In this post, I’ll discuss three articles — each featuring one the books authors. McKay’s short article focuses on the thoughts of author Hal Gregersen. She continues:

“Innovators think differently and they behave differently, says Gregersen. They ask questions, look out for the unexpected, and are ready to experiment. About one third of these traits is genetically inherited, he believes, but the other two thirds can be learned. That’s good news for companies. They can unleash the innovative capabilities of their employees by making innovation a priority from the top of the company downwards.”

I’d modify that “good news” to say that companies with the right corporate culture “can unleash innovative capabilities of their employees.” Booz & Company analysts, Barry Jaruzelski, John Loehr, and Richard Holman, insist that, when it comes to corporate innovation, the most important factor “is the role played by corporate culture — the organization’s self-sustaining patterns of behaving, feeling, thinking, and believing — in tying them all together.” [“The Global Innovation 1000: Why Culture Is Key,” Strategy + Business, 25 October 2011] Gregersen told McKay that innovative companies generally have innovative people at the top. “The people part, it starts at the top,” he said. “You walk into senior management teams in organisations that are incredibly innovative and they don’t delegate innovation to somebody else.” He also agrees with Jaruzelski, Loehr, and Holman that corporate culture is critical. McKay concludes”

“But openness to new ideas has to be the rule right through the company, Gregersen says. Employees at every level should be constantly invited to ask themselves: ‘How can we do this better?’ In a successful company, innovation ‘is everybody’s job. It’s just part of what you do when you walk in through the door today when you come to work.'”

In another article about The Innovator’s DNA, the featured author is Clayton Christensen. [“Think different,” The Economist, 6 August 2011] The article begins:

“Innovation is today’s equivalent of the Holy Grail. Rich-world governments see it as a way of staving off stagnation. Poor governments see it as a way of speeding up growth. And businesspeople everywhere see it as the key to survival. Which makes Clay Christensen the closest thing we have to Sir Galahad. Fourteen years ago Mr Christensen, a knight of the Harvard Business School, revolutionised the study of the subject with ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’, a book that popularised the term ‘disruptive innovation’. [His latest book is] ‘The Innovator’s DNA’, co-written with Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen, which tries to take us inside the minds of successful innovators. How do they go about their business? How do they differ from regular suits? And what can companies learn from their mental habits?”

The assertion that you can learn by aping what others do is certainly not a new concept. Many creativity gurus recommend that when faced with a challenge you should ask yourself: What would [insert famous person’s name here] do? To get the most from such an exercise, consultants recommend that you consider famous people from outside your line of work or business sector. Gregersen, Dyer, and Christensen are offering some insights into how some of the world’s “born innovators” think and act. The article continues:

“Mr Christensen and his colleagues list five habits of mind that characterise disruptive innovators: associating, questioning, observing, networking and experimenting. Innovators excel at connecting seemingly unconnected things. Marc Benioff got the idea for Salesforce.com by looking at enterprise software through the prism of online businesses such as Amazon and eBay. Why were software companies flogging cumbersome products in the form of CD-ROMs rather than as flexible services over the internet? Salesforce.com is now worth $19 billion. These creative associations often come from broadening your experience. Mr Benioff had his lucrative epiphany while on sabbatical—swimming with dolphins, he says. Joe Morton, co-founder of XANGO, got the idea for a new health drink when he tasted mangosteen fruit in Malaysia. Mr Christensen and [his colleagues] reckon that businesspeople are 35% more likely to sprout a new idea if they have lived in a foreign country (a rather precise statistic). But this is not a recipe for just hanging loose: IDEO, an innovation consultancy, argues that the best innovators are ‘T-shaped’—they need to have depth in one area as well as breadth in lots.”

I’ll discuss the five habits of mind in a little more detail below. They aren’t really new, just repackaged by some very bright people. Consultants have for years pointed out that the most creative people ask questions — lots of questions. As the article states, “Innovators are constantly asking why things aren’t done differently.” They also expose themselves to a range of ideas. Many creative people, for example, have offices stuffed with gadgets and toys. They read a variety of magazines and books outside of their area of expertise. They watch movies of all genres and they travel. The article continues:

“This taste for questions is linked to a talent for observation. Corey Wride came up with the idea for Movie Mouth, a company that uses popular films to teach foreign languages, when he was working in Brazil. He noticed that the best English speakers had picked it up from film stars, not school teachers. But people without a flair for languages find the ‘Brad Pitt’ method tricky—actors speak too fast. So Mr Wride invented a computer program that allows users to slow films down, hear explanations of various idioms and even speak the actors’ lines for them.”

The article claims that innovators have a “reputation as misfits.” That’s probably because there is a fine line that separates inventors from innovators. I’d say that inventors are more deserving of the misfit title than innovators. Not everything that inventors come up with is useful. An innovator, on the other hand, only attains that moniker if he or she comes up with something new, useful, and valued. Whereas some inventors (like mad scientists of literature and movies) are loners, innovators, it turns out, “tend to be great networkers.” The article explains:

“They hang around gabfests to pick up ideas, not to win contracts. Michael Lazaridis, the founder of Research in Motion, says he had the idea for the BlackBerry at a trade show, when someone told him how Coca-Cola machines used wireless technology to signal that they needed refilling. Kent Bowen has turned CPS Technologies into one of the world’s fizziest ceramics companies by encouraging his employees to network with scientists who are confronted with similar problems in different fields: for example, the company eliminated troublesome ice crystals by talking to experts on freezing sperm (really).”

In a number of past posts concerning creativity and innovation, I’ve noted that the most interesting discoveries and innovations are found at the intersections of disciplines. Universities have picked up on that notion and some of the best schools offer courses that integrate business, engineering, and science. The article goes to report that “innovators are also inveterate experimenters, who fiddle with both their products and their business models.”

“Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, now sells e-readers and rents out computer power and data storage (by one estimate a quarter of small and medium-sized companies in Silicon Valley use the company’s cloud). These experiments are frequently serendipitous. IKEA never planned to base its business on self-assembly. But then a marketing manager discovered that the best way to get some furniture back into a lorry, after a photo-shoot, was to take its legs off, and a new business model was born.”

Of course, having an idea is very different than having the courage to act on that idea. One of the benefits of encouraging innovation in an established company is that employees can get rewarded for their ideas with little risk on their part. As noted above, that is why corporate culture is so important to the innovation process. The article states that “Christensen, Dyer and Gregersen argue that companies that have the highest ‘innovation premiums’ (calculated by looking at the proportion of their market value that cannot be accounted for by their current products) display the same five habits of mind as individual innovators. They work hard to recruit creative people.” It explains:

“They work equally hard at stimulating observation and questioning. Keyence Corporation, a Japanese maker of automation devices for factories, requires its salespeople to spend hours watching its customers’ production lines. Procter & Gamble and Google have found that job swaps provoke useful questions: the Googlers were stunned that P&G did not invite ‘mommy bloggers’—women who write popular blogs on child-rearing—to attend its press conferences.”

The article ends with some skepticism about how much innovation can be learned. It notes that the book’s authors, despite “their insistence that innovation can be learned, … produce a lot of evidence that the disruptive sort requires genius.” The article’s concludes, “Nearly all the world’s most innovative companies are run by megaminds. … The innovator’s DNA is rare, alas. And … it is impossible to clone.”


To be fair to the book’s authors, they don’t claim that by following the five habits of mind that a person will transform into another Steve Jobs. They do believe, however, that individuals who adopt the five habits will become a more innovative version of themselves. A third article about the book, focuses on Jeffrey H. Dyer, who taught at the Wharton School of Business before returning to BYU where he received his MBA. “Dyer is the only strategy scholar in the world to have published five times in both Harvard Business Review and Strategic Management Journal and he was the fourth most-cited management scholar over the period from 1996-2006.” [“BYU Prof’s New Book and Forbes Article Tell How Everyone Can Innovate Like the Best,” BYU Media Relations, 11 August 2011] According to the article, “Dyer … and his coauthors found that the most innovative CEOs spend 50 percent more time practicing five specific innovation skills than do their less creative counterparts.” Whereas The Economist calls these skills “habits of mind,” Dyer calls them “discovery skills.” Those skills are listed below “along with specific actions you can take to implement them”:

Questioning — ‘It became clear early on that these folks asked a lot more questions than your typical executive,’ Dyer said. ‘Especially questions that challenge the status quo.’

  • Write 10 questions each day that challenge assumptions in your company or industry. Asking ‘why?’ ‘why not?’ and ‘what if?’ spur creative thinking. Embrace constraints. For example, ask, ‘If we were legally barred from doing things the way we do them now, what would we do?’

Observing — ‘But if you just sit in your room and question all day, you are not going to start an innovative business,’ says Dyer, who chairs the Marriott School of Management’s Department of Organizational Leadership and Strategy. ‘There’s an action-oriented attitude that is captured in observing and these other skills.’

  • Watch people, especially potential customers. Watch how customers experience a product or service in their natural environment. Focus on what’s different than you expected.

Networking — ‘Rather than network to gain access to resources or to market yourself, connect with others who have very different backgrounds to simply to find and test new ideas. This will widen your perspective,’ Dyer says.

  • Contact the five most creative people you know and ask them to share what they do to stimulate creative thinking. Go to conferences that include people from outside your function, company, industry, or profession.

Experiment —

  • Seek training outside your expertise. Take apart a product or process just to see how it works.

“Living in a different country and culture is an excellent opportunity to experiment, says coauthor Gregersen. ‘You can’t succeed in living overseas without using these discovery skills,’ he says. ‘The constant practice of those skills–required by the novel cultural environment–not only helps people in their present challenges, but also prepares them for equally interesting (but qualitatively different) challenges later.’

Associating —

  • Connecting seemingly unrelated questions and ideas is the skill that brings all the others together, Dyer explains. But associating is triggered by new knowledge that is acquired through questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking.

“The researchers noted that the senior executives of the most innovative companies in their study don’t delegate creative work. So how do they make time for these innovation skills? They enlist others’ help in planning and analysis, the skills that are important for executing rather than innovation, Dyer said. ‘Contrary to conventional wisdom, innovation isn’t a genetic endowment magically given to some and not others; it’s a set of skills that can be developed with practice,’ Dyer says. ‘If you want to be one of the really successful people that make a mark in business, you want to be the person that comes up with the idea, not just the person who carries out others’ ideas.'”

Of all the skills, the most difficult to learn is undoubtedly associating. It “is the skill that brings all the others together.” If there is a genetic endowment for innovators, my guess is that it would be in the ability to associate disparate ideas in a meaningful way. Perhaps that’s why no exercises were recommended to teach this skill. As I noted above, none of the ideas in the book appear to be new; but, it is always good to be reminded how we can make ourselves think more creatively.

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