Guru Review: The Innovator's DNA

What is disruptive innovation and why is it so important for business success? Find out what makes an innovator.
Strategic Facilitation & Ideation, MatthewEMay.com
July 19, 2011

Ask any business owner or CEO about their strategic priority list and “innovation” is likely to be at, or very near, the top. In fact, a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified “creativity” as the number one leadership competency of the future.

One reason for this is that in 1997, Harvard Business School scholar Clayton Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation,” and wrote two bestsellers on the topic—The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution, which examined disruptive technologies, business models and companies. The books moved innovation into the spotlight as being as important as the traditional business skills of strategy and execution.

A few years ago, professors Jeff Dyer of Brigham Young and Hal Gregersen of INSEAD posed a fundamental question to Christensen: exactly where do these disruptive innovations come from? The answer was essentially: "Let's go find out."

With Christensen acting as coach, the team conducted an eight-year study in an effort to better understand the innovative people behind the disruptive technologies, models and companies. They interviewed nearly 100 inventors of revolutionary products and services, as well as founders and CEOs of game-changing companies built on innovative business ideas. They then turned to less famous—but equally as capable—innovators around the world, collecting data from 500 innovators and over 5,000 executives in 75 countries.

The culmination of their research is the new book, The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators.

Big idea

Innovators are not born, they are made. Anyone can be as innovative and impactful as the most creative people in business if they practice certain behaviors. The authors build on what we know about disruptive innovation to reveal five specific behaviors anyone can practice to become innovative thinkers.

Key takeaways

Five behaviors comprise the “innovator’s DNA”:

Associating

Drawing connections between questions, problems or ideas from unrelated fields. When the Medici family brought together and connected creators from a wide range of disciplines—sculptors, scientist, poets, philosophers, painters and architects—new ideas were created at the intersection of the many domains, spawning the Renaissance, one of the most creative eras in history. Innovators connect fields, problems or ideas that others find unrelated.

Questioning

Posing queries that challenge common wisdom. Innovators love to ask, “if we tried this, what would happen?” Innovators consistently demonstrate a high Q/A ratio, where questions (Q) not only outnumber answers (A) in a typical conversation, but are valued at least as highly as good answers.

Observing

Scrutinizing the behavior of customers, suppliers and competitors to identify new ways of doing things. Innovators carefully watch the world around them, and the observations help them gain insights into and ideas for new ways of doing things.

Networking

Meeting people with different ideas and perspectives. Innovators spend a lot of time and energy actively searching for new ideas by talking to people who may offer a radically different view of things. Had Steve Jobs never listened to Apple Fellow Alan Kay—who suggested he meet the "crazy guys" heading up a small computer graphics company called Industrial Light & Magic—he might have never bought the company for $10 million and then go on to rename it Pixar and take it public for $1 billion.

Experimenting

Constructing interactive experiences and provoking unorthodox responses to see what insights emerge. Finally, innovators are experimenters, constantly piloting new ideas and piloting new ideas. They are lifelong learners, forever creating new knowledge by visiting new places, trying new things, seeking new information and testing new ideas.

Liked most

While these five skills represent nothing new—they are well-known, widely practiced by those verse in design thinking, and well-covered in a plethora of articles and books reviewed here on OPEN Forum—there is real value to the depth and breadth of the primary research behind The Innovator's DNA. Most books on innovation, if not written from an insider's knowledge of a particular company or process, are written through a synthesis of existing (and thus secondary) research...meaning they are essentially derivative. That's certainly not the case here—the authors question, observe and network as every innovator must.

Further, the authors used some interesting methods and offer some unique tools created for the reader.

For example, they developed a list of the world’s most innovative companies, based on what they call an "innovation premium"—a stock market premium based on investors’ belief that a company will produce innovations, and even bigger income streams, in the future.

They also provide a self-assessment to rate your own innovator’s DNA and offer a list of practical tips for developing each of the five skills at the end of each chapter. Through interviews and stories—from leaders at Amazon and Apple to those at Google, Skype and Virgin Group—the authors show the five innovation behaviors in action and demonstrate how they build on each other, resulting in maximum creative impact.

Best for...

Anyone wishing to take the principles of how individual people innovate and use that insight to build an innovation code into the organization. If you're a fan of Clayton Christensen's previous books, don't miss this one. The book completes an important trilogy in business literature.

What people are saying

"Businesses worldwide have been guided and influenced by The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution. Now The Innovator’s DNA shows where it all starts. This book gives you the fundamental building blocks for becoming more innovative and changing the world. One of the most important books to come out this year, and one that will remain pivotal reading for years to come."

- Marc Benioff, Chairman and CEO, salesforce.com

Strategic Facilitation & Ideation, MatthewEMay.com