The 5 skills of disruptive innovators

October 5, 2011

the-innovators-dna1The Harvard Business Review offers a preview of the The Innovators DNA, a collaboration by Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal B. Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen to explore what makes a certain type of entrepreneur tick.

When someone opens a dry cleaner or a mortgage business, or even a set of Volkswagen dealerships or McDonald’s franchises, researchers put them all in the same category of entrepreneur as the founders of eBay (Pierre Omidyar) and Amazon (Jeff Bezos).  This creates a categorization problem when trying to find out whether innovative entrepreneurs differ from typical executives.  The fact is that most entrepreneurs launch ventures based on strategies that are not unique and certainly not disruptive.

This distinction leads the authors to conclude that most entrepreneurs do not differ significantly from typical business executives, and that only 10-15% qualify as truly breakthrough entrepreneurs.

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.

We found that innovators “Think Different,” to use a well-known Apple slogan.  Their minds excel at linking together ideas that aren’t obviously related to produce original ideas (we call this cognitive skill “associational thinking” or “associating”).  But to think different, innovators had to “act different.”  All were questioners, frequently asking questions that punctured the status quo.  Some observed the world with intensity beyond the ordinary.  Others networked with the most diverse people on the face of the earth. Still others placed experimentation at the center of their innovative activity.  When engaged in consistently, these actions—questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting—triggered associational thinking to deliver new businesses, products, services, and/or processes.  Most of us think creativity is an entirely cognitive skill; it all happens in the brain. A critical insight from our research is that one’s ability to generate innovative ideas is not merely a function of the mind, but also a function of behaviors.  This is good news for us all because it means that if we change our behaviors, we can improve our creative impact.

This counter-intuitive conclusion presents some challenges to other recent research on the topic.

Professor Sarasvathy of Darden School of Business saw a difference inside the mind of great entrepreneurs which she categorized as effectual reasoning vs. causal reasoning.  Entrepreneurs “whip up something” from available ingredients (like an Iron Chef) whereas business executives diligently seek the best way to accomplish a set goal.  Dyer would likely see this as somewhat congruent with their own research: their mortgager, car dealer, or franchisee must still “whip up something” even if they’re not engaged in disruptive innovation.

Mark de Rond, Adrian Moorhouse, and Matt Rogan, blogging at HBR, extol serendipity’s role in innovation and distinguish it from mere luck entrepreneurs see meaningful connections where others do not and are skilled at recombining casual observations into something meaningful.  The authors of IDNA draw a similar conclusion from their own research – the aforementioned “associating” – and describe it as the backbone structure of their IDNA’s double helix:

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.

Dyer do point out that while the 5 skills can be developed (or lost) they do not ensure financial success, mirroring something we ourselves have writtenthe road to failed business models is paved with “innovation.”  It’s a long and difficult journey from idea to successful business, and entrepreneurs need partners who intuitively understand the right kind of support to offer over the long term during which failure can be counted on to make at least a cameo appearance.

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