PROVO — Steve Jobs' company Apple didn't come up with the iPod or the MacBook just because he's smart, according to a recent study.
He's also a good question asker, observer, experimenter, networker and associater. In fact, it turns out that nearly all innovators have honed those five skills, which is why they're changing the world and making the big bucks, the report said.
"We realized that creativity is perhaps more a function of your behaviors than we had originally thought," said the report's lead author, Jeffrey Dyer, who is chairman of the Department of Organizational Leadership and Strategy at BYU's Marriott School of Management.
The six-year study, "The Innovator's DNA," published in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review, shows that innovative entrepreneurs and CEOs spent 50 percent more time engaging in discovery activities than CEOs not known for innovation.
Dyer and co-authors Hal Gregersen of INSEAD, near Paris, and Clayton M. Christensen of Harvard University's Business School surveyed 3,000 executives, plus 300 executives who were also innovators.
The innovators included the masterminds behind Amazon.com, Skype, Apple, Dell, Xango, Omniture and eBay.
The professors discovered five traits, which they compared to DNA in that no two people will think exactly alike. The professors found the similar traits are building blocks of good, creative strategies and can be replicated.
The first trait of associating is seen as the backbone of the DNA's double helix. The ability to connect seemingly unrelated concepts is crucial, the authors say.
"Remember, act different to think different, not think different to act different," said Gregersen, a former BYU professor who now teaches at INSEAD, the prestigious business school in Europe. "Every innovator in our research study excelled at associating, putting diverse pieces of ideas and experiences together in new combinations that made a difference."
Associating may be the most difficult skill, Dyer said, but "the more you engage in the discovery behaviors, the more you will naturally tend to engage in associations," he said.
The next behavior is questioning. Innovators ask "Why?" "Why not?" and "What if?"
It's a skill that with a little bit of practice yields immediate results, Dyer said.
An executive in one of Dyer's creative strategic thinking classes reported that by waking up 30 minutes earlier each day to generate a list of questions about a problem at work, he earned the praise of his boss and eventually a large promotion because of his increased creative strategic thinking.
After questioning comes observing, which helps innovators identify new problems, solutions and possibilities.
Experimenting allows innovators to see what works and what doesn't, with the explanation that "mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of; in fact, they are expected as a cost of doing business."
It's the "courage to innovate" and break out of the status quo that makes these CEOs successful, according to the study.
The final skill of networking allows innovators insight into another profession or environment with its new realms of possibility.
Children are great examples of innovators, because they ask questions, make observations, draw unusual connections, experiment with anything and talk with almost anyone, Gregersen said.
Such creativity must be encouraged and promoted, he said.
"One of the greatest gifts we can give our posterity," Gregersen said, "is the capacity to innovate … by nurturing their new ideas."e-mail: [email protected]