Five Discovery Skills that Distinguish Great Innovators

In The Innovator's DNA, authors Jeff Dyer, Hal Gergersen, and Clayton M. Christensen build on the idea of disruptive innovation to outline the five discovery skills that distinguish the Steve Jobses and Jeff Bezoses of the world from the run-of-the-mill corporate managers.
by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gergersen & Clayton M. Christensen

In their new book, The Innovator's DNA, authors Jeff Dyer, Hal Gergersen, and Clayton M. Christensen build on the idea of disruptive innovation to explain how and why the Steve Jobses and Jeff Bezoses of the world are so successful. This excerpt from Chapter One summarizes the five discovery skills that distinguish innovative entrepreneurs and executives from run-of-the-mill managers.

What Makes Innovators Different?

The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators So what makes innovators different from the rest of us? Most of us believe this question has been answered. It's a genetic endowment. Some people are right brained, which allows them to be more intuitive and divergent thinkers. Either you have it or you don't.

But does research really support this idea? Our research confirms others' work that creativity skills are not simply genetic traits endowed at birth, but that they can be developed. In fact, the most comprehensive study confirming this was done by a group of researchers, Merton Reznikoff, George Domino, Carolyn Bridges, and Merton Honeymon, who studied creative abilities in 117 pairs of identical and fraternal twins. Testing twins aged fifteen to twenty-two, they found that only about 30 percent of the performance of identical twins on a battery of ten creativity tests could be attributed to genetics. 6 In contrast, roughly 80 percent to 85 percent of the twins' performance on general intelligence (IQ) tests could be attributed to genetics. 7 So general intelligence (at least the way scientists measure it) is basically a genetic endowment, but creativity is not. Nurture trumps nature as far as creativity goes. Six other creativity studies of identical twins confirm the Reznikoff et al. result: roughly 25 percent to 40 percent of what we do innovatively stems from genetics. 8 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.

This is one reason that individuals who grow up in societies that promote community versus individualism and hierarchy over merit—such as Japan, China, Korea, and many Arab nations—are less likely to creatively challenge the status quo and turn out innovations (or win Nobel prizes). To be sure, many innovators in our study seemed genetically gifted. But more importantly, they often described how they acquired innovation skills from role models who made it "safe" as well as exciting to discover new ways of doing things.

If innovators can be made and not just born, how then do they come up with great new ideas? Our research on roughly five hundred innovators compared to roughly five thousand executives led us to identify five discovery skills that distinguish innovators from typical executives. First and foremost, innovators count on a cognitive skill that we call "associational thinking" or simply "associating." Associating happens as the brain tries to synthesize and make sense of novel inputs. It helps innovators discover new directions by making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas. Innovative breakthroughs often happen at the intersection of diverse disciplines and fields. Author Frans Johanssen described this phenomenon as "the Medici effect," referring to the creative explosion in Florence when the Medici family brought together creators from a wide range of disciplines—sculptors, scientist, poets, philosophers, painters, and architects. As these individuals connected, they created new ideas at the intersection of their respective fields, thereby spawning the Renaissance, one of the most innovative eras in history. Put simply, innovative thinkers connect fields, problems, or ideas that others find unrelated.

The other four discovery skills trigger associational thinking by helping innovators increase their stock of building-block ideas from which innovative ideas spring. Specifically, innovators engage the following behavioral skills more frequently:

Questioning. Innovators are consummate questioners who show a passion for inquiry. Their queries frequently challenge the status quo, just as [Apple Inc. co-founder Steve] Jobs did when he asked, "Why does a computer need a fan?" They love to ask, "If we tried this, what would happen?" Innovators, like Jobs, ask questions to understand how things really are today, why they are that way, and how they might be changed or disrupted. Collectively, their questions provoke new insights, connections, possibilities, and directions. We found that 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. Innovators are also intense observers. They carefully watch the world around them—including customers, products, services, technologies, and companies—and the observations help them gain insights into and ideas for new ways of doing things. Jobs's observation trip to Xerox PARC provided the germ of insight that was the catalyst for both the Macintosh's innovative operating system and mouse, and Apple's current OSX operating system.

Networking. Innovators spend a lot of time and energy finding and testing ideas through a diverse network of individuals who vary wildly in their backgrounds and perspectives. Rather than simply doing social networking or networking for resources, they actively search for new ideas by talking to people who may offer a radically different view of things. For example, Jobs talked with an Apple Fellow named Alan Kay, who told him to "go visit these crazy guys up in San Rafael, California." The crazy guys were Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray, who headed up a small computer graphics operation called Industrial Light & Magic (the group created special effects for George Lucas's movies). Fascinated by their operation, Jobs bought Industrial Light & Magic for $10 million, renamed it Pixar, and eventually took it public for $1 billion. Had he never chatted with Kay, he would never have wound up purchasing Pixar, and the world might never have thrilled to wonderful animated films like Toy Story, WALL-E, and Up.

Experimenting. Finally, innovators are constantly trying out new experiences and piloting new ideas. Experimenters unceasingly explore the world intellectually and experientially, holding convictions at bay and testing hypotheses along the way. They 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. Collectively, these discovery skills—the cognitive skill of associating and the behavioral skills of questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting—constitute what we call the innovator's DNA, or the code for generating innovative business ideas.

    • Tzachi Bar
    The behavioral skills the authors mention seem reasonable.

    The measure of genetic component in creativity seems lower than one would expect. I wonder how much this number depends on the test and how well it actually measures creativity. This also means that creativity has to well defined.
    • Tazio Grivetti
    • Engineering Supervisor, Caterpillar
    We studied what makes an innovator, and in the end came to the conclusion that you "just are". There was no magic training that could be given at to an adult, that would transform them into a true innovator. But the people who ARE true innovators are unique, usually prolific, and simply think differently that the average or vast majority of people. Perhaps the right kind of experiences as a child/teen help develop the other four traits develop. From my own perspective - the other four traits are SPOT ON - although your success at networking depends on other outside factors. If you've got an innovator on your staff you'd better find a way to make the most of your good fortune. Sounds like another great book.
    • Sam Gopal
    • Director, Iron Mountain
    Great article, and definitely in line with the attributes of innovators that come to mind. There's a new book by Peter Sims (Little Bets) which does a deeper dive into these behaviors as well. He brings up a framework of the "fixed mind-set" (where intelligence is assumed to be innate) vs. the "growth mind set" (where intelligence can be developed). Very compelling argument that innovators through questioning and the joy of learning grow and achieve more over the long run.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    This ia an indepth examination of the traits of great innovators. They are deep thinkers and keen observers of what goes on around them. In my view their genes also have a role to play for one starts seeing them grow in this direction right from their infancy. They develop their innovative faculties if properly encouraged. Bookish knowledge is important but there are many instances of the creative expertise of even those who are not highly educated.
    • Anonymous
    This article reminded me of something I read in April named "Want Innovation? Hire a Liberal Arts Major." I am an Innovator and was thrilled to finally "find myself." I have provided successful out of the box solutions for Fortune 125 companies to help them combat competitive threats. The following is from a comment on the April article. It makes a nice compliment to the article above. I am a liberal arts undergrad (journalism and pr) who's currently working on my MBA which, I'm finding, really teaches a person how to stay in the box and reduce risk. It's upside down to Innovation. I'll get through it's contrary to my nature Here's the referenced comment:

    RE: Need Innovation? Hire Humanities Grads
    There are 5 core entrepreneurial skills:
    Associating. Innovators "connect the dots." They accumulate information from diverse sources and create pattern maps of innovation that others don't see. Putting this information on their cerebral shelves, they can extract it at the right time when they see an application that others don't.
    Observing. Innovators are "intense observers" and so are able to spot patient needs and emerging "weak signals." They are problem seekers, not problem solvers. They don't rely on linear technology push-market pull models, but rather on the more intuitive non-linear processes of innovation, such as structured serendipity, exporting and failure. Just ask Alexander Fleming. They are always observing.
    Experimenting. Innovators try things just to see if they work, while others want to know if they will work before they try them. They create assumptions and challenge them with experiments with measurable outcomes. If business Plan A does not work, they try something else and move to Plan B quickly before it's too late.
    Questioning. Innovators are curious, and they ask questions not just because they are after something but because they enjoy the journey of discovery. They challenge existing assumptions and paradigms (stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria, not stress); they constantly ask "what if?â?? (What if we eliminate fee-for-service to create a better healthcare model?) and "why?" (Why do we need boots to cover our shoes in the OR?)
    Networking. Finally, innovators are great networkers and they network without a precise goal in mind. They like meeting and talking to new people with opposing views and with seemingly unrelated interests. This gives them access to a breadth of information and resources more diverse than less-innovative people. Most doctors grow up and are culturally educated in a silo. Innovation erupts from interactions with people unlike you, people with a different view of the world and diverse life experiences.

    I bet on liberal arts majors.
    Arlen Meyers, MD, MBA
    Dickinson College, '68

    Read more: SoPE Box: Skills of successful entrepreneurs - Modern Physician
    • Carole Diamante
    • research faculty, Assumption College Manila Phils
    My gratitude indeed to the researches who brilliantly articulated these points of being innovative. More often than not, clumsily changing almost everything in the guise of innovation, is the grand excuse of "brilliant" neophytes and "sociopaths" entering an organization. Organization heads who would shoot down inquiries, looks suspiciously at keen observers, dubious of social networkings and so stringent with experimentations. Kudos indeed to these authors.
    • Anonymous
    Companies follow a cult of execution where getting things done is all that counts. Strategy shops are left to do the "big thinking" but the ones I've worked in are typically research teams for the C-level execs' projects.

    Very few companies have any kind of process for figuring out what they should be doing. CEO's are basically investor relations. COO's and Ops focus on doing things more efficiently. Everyone responds to their personal incentive plans drawn up by senior execs who aren't the most innovative group in the world. Grim.

    Look at the attributes listed - the promotion system of most companies filters those out very early.
    • Scott Squires
    • visual effects supervisor
    There are a few factual issues in your posting.

    "The crazy guys were Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray, who headed up a small computer graphics operation called Industrial Light & Magic (the group created special effects for George Lucas's movies). Fascinated by their operation, Jobs bought Industrial Light & Magic for $10 million, renamed it Pixar, and eventually took it public for $1 billion. "

    ILM (Industrial Light and Magic), a visual effects company, was setup and is still owned by George Lucas. Jobs bought a computer graphics division connected to ILM, Pixar. This group was headed up by Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray. They did not head up ILM.

    Those at Pixar had developed some of the early computer graphics and had build a specialize image processing box. Job bought them and they changed their focus to 3D animation.
    • Kate Pill
    • Teacher, Gleeson College
    A thought provoking article. Innovation is something to be encouraged right down to the "grass roots" school context. The challenge for teachers is to not only embrace innovation from a professional context, but to also encourage innovative behaviours in our students. An area for concern is the practice in some countries of standardised testing and the potential for "teaching to the test" that arises from this. Yes, we need to have accountability in our education system, but we also need to actively encourage and value, the development of innovative inquiry.
    • David Rader
    Agree with Tazio, innovators are born not made. It is an innate way of viewing facts and making connections.

    It also never ends. It is not a skill that is unlearned. What is learned is to stifle, to select when, where and with whom to share the insights.
    • Paul Nicholas
    • Director, Soul-Chaplain Consultancy
    This is fantastic and powerful stuff - thank you!
    Associational thinking only works when one has elements, ideas or concepts that one CAN associate - creativity cannot arise from a vacuum - one must have something that one can be creative WITH. Having others around who can contribute - as in the Medici analogy - is an enormous stimulus in this way. I often tell leaders to become an impresario or even a Diaghilev - if you can't dance or compose or choreograph, or paint sets and design costumes, but you can hire Nijinsky, Stravinsky, Fokine, Bakst and Picasso to do it for you, you've got it made!
    Additionally, creative minds are invariably restless and prodigious in their seeking and their productivity - they generate masses of new ideas, most of which turn out to be dead-ends, a few of which turn out to be brilliant. Creative thinking is hard work and requires a lot of raw materials!
    • Shaiful
    Excellent piece of article. I couldn't agree more to what the article says. It makes me dream of being one of the greatest innovator in the world.
    • Heidi Olson
    • underemployed
    The definition of an innovator sounds very similar to the definition of a gifted person (high IQ/Mensa). And giftedness is deemed to be innate, so I have to disagree that one can learn to be an innovator. That aside, as a gifted person, and now, I guess, innovator, I have to say it's not easy being one in workplaces that don't value innovation, or even worse, see it as a threat. If I could only find a job where I can brainstorm all day, tackling problem after problem, and topic after topic. It gives me a thrill, and that motivates me.
    • Jessica Margolin
    • Innovator, Winged Pigs, Margolin Consulting
    The question isn't what makes innovators innovative -- every toddler is innovative (can think associatively), just watch them -- the question is: Who is capable of resisting every situation that family/teammates/classmates/colleagues throw at them to norm them, to tell them to FOCUS!, to promote anxiety about success and goals and money and domesticity? Who can resist all that and continue to pursue their curiosity?

    Corporate norming keeps people who work there screening for "fit" and preconcieved ideas of who to hire, such as "Digital Natives" or "Visionary Leadership." Their hypernormed cultures have created a fragile environment, and, ironically, they can't innovate their way out.
    • Gouri Prasad Misra
    • AGM (HRD), SAIL; Rourkela Steel Plant, India.
    15. Great Article. I will answer to Jessica Margolin's (Sl. No. - 14 above).

    There is a fifth dimension to the other four discovery skills - i.e. Innovators use 'COMMON SENSE' as their platform for creativity. Hence starting from ground realities, they innovate their way out. The house is open to probe this fact, as I have seen from the success stories of truly great innovators. What is your observation / research on this Fifth dimension skill? Kindly give this a deep thought.
    • Dr Billy Coop
    • Owner, FutureThink
    I agree with Jessica; simply watch kids at play (especially toddlers) - what we need to do is spend more time observing them and encouraging them to "resist" our tendency to get them to "conform"....!
    • Amanda Grihm
    • Author, Student, Entrepreneur and Intrapreneur
    I agree with the theory of associative thinking and would add that innovators establish a SOLID base of knowledge. They do not operate from segmented information like many people do today. They work with information like they are filling in the pieces of a puzzle. The smallest bit of missing information is glaring and the smallest puzzle piece can complete the whole.

    Innovators take the necessary steps and answer all of the questions. There are millions of people who ask, "Why doesn't someone do XYZ?" They spot the problem and the potential, but they fail to follow up. Innovators say, "Doing XYZ will create or solve this piece of that puzzle." They own the problem and the solution.

    Today, we have many complacent professionals who have been equipped with partial information. (Just look at how many "engineers" only possess a certification that took a month of study to pass). They don't even know what questions to ask to begin the process of innovation. I think companies would be wise the data mine their employees to find and give creative license to employees to innovate within their jobs. These are the people who hear the problems with the product or service, and who hear suggestions and questions from customers. The tinkerers fix problems - off the record and outside the box, often. This should be the first stop for an innovation executive - to learn more about the people who represent his firm and to learn what creative activities those people have already engaged in and what creative ideas they would like to contribute to the business. Employees may be a wellspring for innovative new services and products.
    • Anonymous
    I work in a large bureaucracy and as time goes on i have increasingly realised how differently i think to most of the people i work with. I especially relate to the comment re the jigsaw - all the pieces of information i collect just seem to sit in my head kind of hibernating - if i have seen a problem in the past but not been able to solve it then, it is like an unsolved puzzle waiting for that last piece - when i see the last piece, all the pieces come together into one of those moments when you immediately see how the problem can be solved. Re the genetic and learned component - i definitely see this way of thinking as coming from my Dad - it may be genetic - all my siblings have it to a certain extent, but as the eldest, i think i was on the recieving end of lots of my Dad's theories about how the world could generally be run better! I think this implants a view that almost everything can be improved - if something seems ann
    oying and inefficient, there is probably a way to make it better - you just need to think about it long and hard enough! I think a lot of people who see that something is not working, simply assume that if there was a better way to do it, someone else would have thought of it, and don't spend any time thinking about or investigating whether it could be done better. I wrote my first 'why not do it this way' to the bus company when i was 17 because a bunch of us kept missing our school bus connection. Perhaps that proved to me that i could actually do something to improve my small bit of the world.
    • INAM
    The societies where status quo prevail commonly in that society its absolutly right or you can not express urself what you think about any thing there must be no new idea wil come for the solution of societical and all other problems.what i m learning from HBS articals may be i have thought about some topics in my past but never think to practise these . But after reading some articals it realy give me a new hope that thinking differently and positively is so much beneficial in any circumstances.
    • Tzachi Bar
    • teacher, inventor, scientist, entrepreneur
    The finding of this study remind quite much the description of creative personality that Aharon Kantorovich described several years ago in his book "Scientific Discovery, Logic and Tinkering".

    What the authors call "associational thinking", Kantorovich calls "tinkering". And so on with the rest of the qualities.
    • Derrick Tarver
    I feel like you just dissected my mind. O-O
    • ThoughtPlots
    Enjoyed the article, especially combating the notion that innovation is *genetic.*

    A few questioning comments:

    Association requires access to and working with cultural capital and the desire to do so on a societal level in contrast to some localized form.

    All critical minds question and observe, but networking often comes down to class, not one's overall willingness to engage others. There are social "hierarchies" in American normative culture (as opposed to the authors' mischaracterization of America as merit-based, although undoubtedly it exists, an inadequate summation I would submit). The authors' lazy reference Nobel prizes as somehow indicative of various cultures' true capacity for innovation are culturally-constrained. The prize, while certainly bestowed upon worthy individuals, is a poor judge of universals and is no standard bearer for deep mechanisms at play in something as large as value judgements of global societies.

    Experimentation is not always a positive, there are social consequences (as witnessed by the corporate pharmaceutical industry for ex.) that un-thought through may effect communities outside the target base of any particular innovation strategy. Experimentation is necessary, but there is merit in rigorous vetting processes especially concerning those projects which at the end of the day end up resembling benevolent imperialism more reflective of the helpers' own well-intentioned desires to create a better world.