The Innovator's DNA
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The Innovator's DNA

Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators

Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, Clayton M. Christensen

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eBook - ePub

The Innovator's DNA

Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators

Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, Clayton M. Christensen

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A new classic, cited by leaders and media around the globe as a highly recommended read for anyone interested in innovation.In The Innovator’s DNA, authors Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and bestselling author Clayton Christensen ( The Innovator’s Dilemma, The Innovator’s Solution, How Will You Measure Your Life? ) build on what we know about disruptive innovation to show how individuals can develop the skills necessary to move progressively from idea to impact.By identifying behaviors of the world’s best innovators—from leaders at Amazon and Apple to those at Google, Skype, and Virgin Group—the authors outline five discovery skills that distinguish innovative entrepreneurs and executives from ordinary managers: Associating, Questioning, Observing, Networking, and Experimenting.Once you master these competencies (the authors provide a self-assessment for rating your own innovator’s DNA), the authors explain how to generate ideas, collaborate to implement them, and build innovation skills throughout the organization to result in a competitive edge. This innovation advantage will translate into a premium in your company’s stock price—an innovation premium—which is possible only by building the code for innovation right into your organization’s people, processes, and guiding philosophies.Practical and provocative, The Innovator’s DNA is an essential resource for individuals and teams who want to strengthen their innovative prowess.

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Disruptive Innovation Starts with You


The DNA of Disruptive Innovators

“I want to put a ding in the universe.”
—Steve Jobs, founder and CEO, Apple Inc.
DO I KNOW HOW to generate innovative, even disruptive, business ideas? Do I know how to find creative people or how to train people to think outside the box? These questions stump most senior executives, who know 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 such as Apple’s Steve Jobs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and eBay’s Pierre Omidyar, and innovative executives like P&G’s A. G. Lafley, Bain & Company’s Orit Gadiesh, and eBay’s Meg Whitman. 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?

Ideas for Innovation

Consider the case of Jobs, who was recently ranked the world’s number-one best-performing CEO in a study published by Harvard Business Review.1 You may recall Apple’s famous “Think Different” ad campaign, whose slogan says it all. The campaign featured innovators from different fields, including Albert Einstein, Picasso, Richard Branson, and John Lennon, but Jobs’s face might easily have been featured among the others. After all, everyone knows that Jobs is an innovative guy, that he knows how to think different. But the question is, just how does he do it? Indeed, how does any innovator think different?
The common answer is that the ability to think creatively is genetic. Most of us believe that some people, like Jobs, are simply born with creative genes, while others are not. Innovators are supposedly right brained, meaning that they are genetically endowed with creative abilities. The rest of us are left brained—logical, linear thinkers, with little or no ability to think creatively.
If you believe this, we’re going to tell you that you are largely wrong. At least within the realm of business innovation, virtually everyone has some capacity for creativity and innovative thinking. Even you. So using the example of Jobs, let’s explore this ability to think different. How did Jobs come up with some of his innovative ideas in the past? And what does his journey tell us?

Innovative Idea #1: Personal Computers Should Be Quiet and Small

One of the key innovations in the Apple II, the computer that launched Apple, came from Jobs’s decision that it should be quiet. His conviction resulted, in part, from all the time he’d spent studying Zen and meditating.2 He found the noise of a computer fan distracting. So Jobs was determined that the Apple II would have no fan, which was a fairly radical notion at the time. Nobody else had questioned the need for a fan because all computers required a fan to prevent overheating. Getting rid of the fan wouldn’t be possible without a different type of power supply that generated less heat.
So Jobs went on the hunt for someone who could design a new power supply. Through his network of contacts, he found Rod Holt, a forty-something, chain-smoking socialist from the Atari crowd.3 Pushed by Jobs, Holt abandoned the fifty-year-old conventional linear unit technology and created a switching power supply that revolutionized the way power was delivered to electronics products. Jobs’s pursuit of quiet and Holt’s ability to deliver an innovative power supply that didn’t need a fan made the Apple II the quietest and smallest personal computer ever made (a smaller computer was possible because it didn’t need extra space for the fan).
Had Jobs never asked, “Why does a computer need a fan?” and “How do we keep a computer cool without a fan?” the Apple computer as we know it would not exist.

Innovative Idea #2: The Macintosh User Interface, Operating System, and Mouse

The seed for the Macintosh, with its revolutionary operating system, was planted when Jobs visited Xerox PARC in 1979. Xerox, the copier company, created the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), a research lab charged with designing the office of the future. Jobs wrangled a visit to PARC in exchange for offering Xerox an opportunity to invest in Apple. Xerox didn’t know how to capitalize on the exciting things going on at PARC, but Jobs did.
Jobs carefully observed the PARC computer screen filled with icons, pull-down menus, and overlapping windows—all controlled by the click of a mouse. “What we saw was incomplete and flawed,” Jobs said, “but the germ of the idea was there . . . within ten minutes it was obvious to me that all computers would work like this.”4 He spent the next five years at Apple leading the design team that would produce the Macintosh computer, the first personal computer with a graphical user interface (GUI) and mouse. Oh, and he saw something else during the PARC visit. He got his first taste of object-oriented programming, which became the key to the OSX operating system that Apple acquired from Jobs’s other start-up, NeXT Computers. What if Jobs had never visited Xerox PARC to observe what was going on there?

Innovative Idea #3: Desktop Publishing on the Mac

The Macintosh, with its LaserWriter printer, was the first computer to bring desktop publishing to the masses. Jobs claims that the “beautiful typography” available on the Macintosh would never have been introduced if he hadn’t dropped in on a calligraphy class at Reed College in Oregon. Says Jobs:
Reed College offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand-calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.5
What if Jobs hadn’t decided to drop in on the calligraphy classes when he had dropped out of college?
So what do we learn from Jobs’s ability to think different? Well, first we see that his innovative ideas didn’t spring fully formed from his head, as if they were a gift from the Idea Fairy. When we examine the origins of these ideas, we typically find that the catalyst was: (1) a question that challenged the status quo, (2) an observation of a technology, company, or customer, (3) an experience or experiment where he was trying out something new, or (4) a conversation with someone who alerted him to an important piece of knowledge or opportunity. In fact, by carefully examining Jobs’s behaviors and, specifically, how those behaviors brought in new diverse knowledge that triggered an innovative idea, we can trace his innovative ideas to their source.
What is the moral of this story? We want to convince you that creativity is not just a genetic endowment and not just a cognitive skill. Rather, we’ve learned that creative ideas spring from behavioral skills that you, too, can acquire to catalyze innovative ideas in yourself and in others.

What Makes Innovators Different?

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 (for detail on the research methods, see appendix B). 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 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.

The Courage to Innovate

Why do innovators question, observe, network, and experiment more than typical executives? As we examined what motivates them, we discovered two common themes. First, they actively desire to change the status quo. Second, they regularly take smart risks to make that change happen. Consider the consistency of language that innovators use to describe their motives. Jobs wants to “put a ding in the universe.” Google cofounder Larry Page has said he’s out to “change the world.” These innovators steer entirely clear of a common cognitive trap called the status quo bias—the tendency to prefer an existing state of affairs to alternative ones....

Table of contents

Citation styles for The Innovator's DNA
APA 6 Citation
Dyer, J., Gregersen, H., & Christensen, C. (2011). The Innovator’s DNA ([edition unavailable]). Harvard Business Review Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2011)
Chicago Citation
Dyer, Jeff, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen. (2011) 2011. The Innovator’s DNA. [Edition unavailable]. Harvard Business Review Press.
Harvard Citation
Dyer, J., Gregersen, H. and Christensen, C. (2011) The Innovator’s DNA. [edition unavailable]. Harvard Business Review Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Dyer, Jeff, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen. The Innovator’s DNA. [edition unavailable]. Harvard Business Review Press, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.