The Innovator’s DNA2 December, 2021 / Articles
“How do I find innovative people for my organization? And how can I become more innovative myself?”
These are questions that stump senior executives, who understand that the ability to innovate is the “secret sauce” of business success. Unfortunately, most of us know very little about what makes one person more creative than another. Perhaps for this reason, we stand in awe of visionary entrepreneurs like Apple’s Steve Jobs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, eBay’s Pierre Omidyar, and P&G’s A.G. Lafley. How do these people come up with groundbreaking new ideas? If it were possible to discover the inner workings of the masters’ minds, what could the rest of us learn about how innovation really happens?
In searching for answers, we undertook a six-year study to uncover the origins of creative—and often disruptive—business strategies in particularly innovative companies. Our goal was to put innovative entrepreneurs under the microscope, examining when and how they came up with the ideas on which their businesses were built. We especially wanted to examine how they differ from other executives and entrepreneurs: Someone who buys a McDonald’s franchise may be an entrepreneur, but building an Amazon requires different skills altogether. We studied the habits of 25 innovative entrepreneurs and surveyed more than 3,000 executives and 500 individuals who had started innovative companies or invented new products.
We were intrigued to learn that at most companies, top executives do not feel personally responsible for coming up with strategic innovations. Rather, they feel responsible for facilitating the innovation process. In stark contrast, senior executives of the most innovative companies—a mere 15% in our study—don’t delegate creative work. They do it themselves.
But how do they do it? Our research led us to identify five “discovery skills” that distinguish the most creative executives: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking. We found that innovative entrepreneurs (who are also CEOs) spend 50% more time on these discovery activities than do CEOs with no track record for innovation. Together, these skills make up what we call the innovator’s DNA. And the good news is, if you’re not born with it, you can cultivate it.
What Makes Innovators Different?
Innovative entrepreneurs have something called creative intelligence, which enables discovery yet differs from other types of intelligence (as suggested by Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences). It is more than the cognitive skill of being right-brained. Innovators engage both sides of the brain as they leverage the five discovery skills to create new ideas.
In thinking about how these skills work together, we’ve found it useful to apply the metaphor of DNA. Associating is like the backbone structure of DNA’s double helix; four patterns of action (questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking) wind around this backbone, helping to cultivate new insights. And just as each person’s physical DNA is unique, each individual we studied had a unique innovator’s DNA for generating breakthrough business ideas.
Imagine that you have an identical twin, endowed with the same brains and natural talents that you have. You’re both given one week to come up with a creative new business-venture idea. During that week, you come up with ideas alone in your room. In contrast, your twin (1) talks with 10 people—including an engineer, a musician, a stay-at-home dad, and a designer—about the venture, (2) visits three innovative start-ups to observe what they do, (3) samples five “new to the market” products, (4) shows a prototype he’s built to five people, and (5) asks the questions “What if I tried this?” and “Why do you do that?” at least 10 times each day during these networking, observing, and experimenting activities. Who do you bet will come up with the more innovative (and doable) idea?
Studies of identical twins separated at birth indicate that our ability to think creatively comes one-third from genetics; but two-thirds of the innovation skill set comes through learning—first understanding a given skill, then practicing it, experimenting, and ultimately gaining confidence in one’s capacity to create. Innovative entrepreneurs in our study acquired and honed their innovation skills precisely this way.
Let’s look at the skills in detail.
Discovery Skill 1: Associating
Associating, or the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields, is central to the innovator’s DNA. Entrepreneur Frans Johansson described this phenomenon as the “Medici effect,” referring to the creative explosion in Florence when the Medici family brought together people from a wide range of disciplines—sculptors, scientists, poets, philosophers, painters, and architects. As these individuals connected, new ideas blossomed at the intersections of their respective fields, thereby spawning the Renaissance, one of the most inventive eras in history.
To grasp how associating works, it is important to understand how the brain operates. The brain doesn’t store information like a dictionary, where you can find the word “theater” under the letter “T.” Instead, it associates the word “theater” with any number of experiences from our lives. Some of these are logical (“West End” or “intermission”), while others may be less obvious (perhaps “anxiety,” from a botched performance in high school). The more diverse our experience and knowledge, the more connections the brain can make. Fresh inputs trigger new associations; for some, these lead to novel ideas. As Steve Jobs has frequently observed, “Creativity is connecting things.”
The world’s most innovative companies prosper by capitalizing on the divergent associations of their founders, executives, and employees. For example, Pierre Omidyar launched eBay in 1996 after linking three unconnected dots: (1) a fascination with creating more-efficient markets, after having been shut out from a hot internet company’s IPO in the mid-1990s; (2) his fiancée’s desire to locate hard-to-find collectible Pez dispensers; and (3) the ineffectiveness of local classified ads in locating such items. Likewise, Steve Jobs is able to generate idea after idea because he has spent a lifetime exploring new and unrelated things—the art of calligraphy, meditation practices in an Indian ashram, the fine details of a Mercedes-Benz.
Associating is like a mental muscle that can grow stronger by using the other discovery skills. As innovators engage in those behaviors, they build their ability to generate ideas that can be recombined in new ways. The more frequently people in our study attempted to understand, categorize, and store new knowledge, the more easily their brains could naturally and consistently make, store, and recombine associations.
Discovery Skill 2: Questioning
More than 50 years ago, Peter Drucker described the power of provocative questions. “The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers, it is to find the right question,” he wrote. Innovators constantly ask questions that challenge common wisdom or, as Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata puts it, “question the unquestionable.” Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, has worked directly with a number of innovative entrepreneurs, including the founders of eBay, PayPal, and Skype. “They get a kick out of screwing up the status quo,” she told us. “They can’t bear it. So they spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about how to change the world. And as they brainstorm, they like to ask: ‘If we did this, what would happen?’”
Most of the innovative entrepreneurs we interviewed could remember the specific questions they were asking at the time they had the inspiration for a new venture. Michael Dell, for instance, told us that his idea for founding Dell Computer sprang from his asking why a computer cost five times as much as the sum of its parts. “I would take computers apart…and would observe that $600 worth of parts were sold for $3,000.” In chewing over the question, he hit on his revolutionary business model.