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July 26, 2011


Learning to Become a Great Innovator

By Joe Maglitta

Most of us are resigned to the fact we’ll never be as innovative (or wealthy) as Steve Jobs. After all, such disruptive geniuses are born, not made, right?

Wrong, says Harvard Business School. “Nurture trumps nature as far as creativity goes,” say Jeff Dyer, Hal Gergersen and Clayton M. Christensen.

Ordinary, mortal managers can become effective innovators, the authors say in their new book, The Innovator’s DNA, published by Harvard Business School Press this week.

The key? Mastering the five discovery skills that distinguish successful innovators: associating, questioning, observing, networking and experimenting.

How did the team reach this counterintuitive conclusion? They first reviewed seven major studies of creativity in twins. The surprising consensus: 80 to 85 percent of intelligence tests performance appeared genetic, compared to only 25 to 40 percent on innovation tests.

“That means that roughly two-thirds of our innovation skills still come through learning—from first understanding the skill, then practicing it, and ultimately gaining confidence in our capacity to create,” they wrote.
To identify these traits, the researchers compared roughly 500 innovators to 5,000 ordinary executives. Here what the authors say make up the “The Innovator’s DNA” – the inner code for generating innovative business ideas.

Associating. Innovators connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas in new ways. Many breakthroughs, they note, occur at the intersection of diverse disciplines and fields. This phenomenon is known as “the Medici effect” after the Florentine family that mingled sculptors, scientist, poets, philosophers, painters, and architects and other innovators, sparking the Renaissance.

Questioning. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is said to have famously asked: “Why does a computer need a fan?” (Macs don’t have cooling fans for their motherboards and chips, where most PCs do.) Innovators continually ask and value probing questions about how and why. These provoke new insights, connections, possibilities and directions.

Observing. Innovators carefully watch customers, products, services, technologies and companies seeking new ways of doing things.

Networking. Innovators spend a lot of time and energy talking to people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

Experimenting. Innovators constantly visit new places, try new things, seek new information, and experiment to learn new things. “Jobs, for example, has tried new experiences all his life—from meditation and living in an ashram in India to dropping in on a calligraphy class at Reed College. All these varied experiences would later trigger ideas for innovations at Apple Computer.”

  1. Sep 15 2011

    I have been so bewidleerd in the past but now it all makes sense!

    • Aug 26 2012

      @MaddieExcellent point. I’m not so sure we need to change the voucbalary as much as the culture. So often, innovation is what jump-starts an organization. In its infancy, the organization embraces innovation and allowing people to object out loud without having a fear of something negative happening to them. As the organization grows, it has to focus on execution and innovation takes a back seat. The culture then shifts to one of don’t rock the boat, instead of finding fresh ways to do things. I think we need both mindsets one of execution and one of innovation. We need more leaders to create safe spaces where innovators can thrive. Perhaps we need Innovation Think Tank departments just like R&D. What do some of you other readers think about Maddie’s question?

    • Aug 27 2012

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  2. Aug 29 2012

    @TahiraThanks for adding to the coaiorsntven. I like your comments about applying two different types of brainstorming: non-judgmental generative brainstorming and analytical brainstorming. We so often just jump into judging other people’s ideas that we lose the full affect of generative brainstorming!@DonnaI can definitely see you as the rabble rousing innovator for sure! Organizations are good at cultivating implementers and executioners. Now they need to get good at cultivating innovators. Thanks for reading and commenting always!

  3. Aug 31 2012

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  4. Sep 19 2012

    Asking questions are truly fastidious thing if you are not understanding anything entirely, except this piece of writing offers nice understanding even.

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