Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson — CEOs of some of the world’s best known companies — have achieved rock-star status because of one talent they each possess — the ability to innovate. Their organizations have introduced innovations so simple yet powerful that they have unseated market leaders, created entirely new categories of products and services and changed the way many of us live our lives.
Some have said creativity is deeply wired in our brains; we have it or we do not. Either we are prewired to be a successful musician, dancer or innovative business leader or we have little hope. The good news is recent research shows that our prewiring is of minor consequence. Creativity and innovation can be learned. We can rewire our brains to innovate.
Even though creativity can be developed, many of us are flummoxed and perplexed about how to generate innovative ideas. We struggle to help ourselves and others think differently and develop disruptive ideas that can transform our organizations.
Jeff Dyer from Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen from INSEAD in Europe, in collaboration with Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen, the author of the best-selling "The Innovator’s Dilemma," spent eight years searching for answers to questions like "How do disruptive innovators innovate?" Their relevant findings can be found in the new book, "The Innovator’s DNA."
With a foundation of solid research, the authors share insights from great innovators that bring the "how" of innovation to light and explain why many of us struggle with creativity. Their findings suggest that many of us get so focused on executing yesterday’s ideas that we fail to create tomorrow’s. We spend more time developing the skills of delivery than the skills of discovery.
The authors introduce five techniques that disruptive innovators use to discover innovations — associating, questioning, observing, networking and experimenting — and what motivates innovators to use them.
One of my favorites is the habit of questioning. Dyer, Gregersen and Christensen explain, "Innovators are consummate questioners. They love to ask, 'If we tried this, what would happen?' 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."
Although questioning is critical, the authors observe that questions are just one piece of the innovation puzzle. Disruptive innovation is much more likely to occur if questioning is coupled with the skills of associating, observing, networking and experimenting.
With more actionable substance than many business books, "The Innovator’s DNA" includes meaningful self-assessments, useful tips and practical tools to help us apply the five techniques. One of my favorites is a 20-question survey that helps us see our strengths and weaknesses as innovators. Another is a set of methods to experiment differently. Most of us think of experimenting as testing ideas. The authors suggest we should also broaden our experimenting to include exposing ourselves to unfamiliar situations and ideas and disassembling existing products and processes.
Beyond providing insights to become better innovators, the authors also help us understand how to create disruptive organizations with innovative people, processes and philosophies.
The book authentically reflects the difficulty of being an innovative leader with sections on the real challenges senior executives face. For instance, many organizations expect leaders to have answers, not questions, to create certainty, not upheaval. Another situation executives find themselves in is trying to encourage their teams to take on the status quo that they themselves helped to create.
And do not forget to take a look at Appendix C, which probably should have been a full chapter, with more insights to develop our discovery skills.
Although the authors are academicians, not storytellers, they have written an eminently readable book that is also a useful guide through the process of innovation. Whether we are trying to innovate at the office, home or in our communities, "The Innovator's DNA" provides insights and suggestions that can help us increase our chances of creating the disruptive breakthroughs we need.
Brett Pinegar is the managing partner at Flex-ion, where he helps teams and their leaders inspire, trust, learn, innovate, focus and execute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter, @brettpinegar.
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