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ON THE SHELFFrom Discovery to Success

How the most creative minds in business think

The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators

by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen
Harvard Business Review Press, 295 pages

That innovation has become a priority for businesses can be attributed in some small measure to Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who championed its importance as early as 1995 and has been writing about it ever since. Christensen was also first to discuss the need for “disruptive technologies,” which today serves as a persuasive model for boldly re-envisioning products and restructuring markets.

Having addressed in several books the value of innovation in business, healthcare, and education, Christensen now turns to consider the personal characteristics of innovators. Along with coauthors Jeff Dyer of Brigham Young University’s management school and Hal Gregersen of INSEAD business school, Christensen undertook an eight-year study of successful creative individuals and their companies, interviewing 500 inventors and 5,000 CEOs, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, eBay’s Pierre Omidyar, Michael Dell of Dell Computers, and A.G. Lafley, formerly of Procter and Gamble. The result is a book that focuses not so much on business strategies as on “[digging] into the thinking of the innovators themselves.”

What we learn in The Innovator’s DNA is that creative entrepreneurs do indeed “think different,” as the Apple Inc. advertisement would have it. More important, innovators “act different,” determinedly taking steps to ensure that their businesses stand out from others. And while many of us may not possess inborn creativity, everyone can cultivate such traits, the authors believe. Offered as a working guide, The Innovator’s DNA is divided into two parts. The first discusses how individuals can strengthen core “discovery skills” – associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting. The second shifts from individuals to groups and companies, identifying three crucial elements for developing well-functioning innovative teams: people, processes, and philosophies.

Without a doubt, this book joins an already overcrowded field of publications that purport to unlock the secrets of business creativity. In addition, many of the observations within The Innovator’s DNA are familiar – that innovators need to be inquisitive and experimental, for example. Yet, what distinguishes this study is its intelligent, appealing approach. Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen aren’t hawking five easy steps for success. Instead, they encourage broad creativity, open-mindedness, and experimentation. Attend conferences not for business contacts, they write, but for an inspiring exchange of ideas and new perspectives. For even greater cross-fertilization, join conferences in a different field and seek out contacts in diverse professions and levels of specialization. Elsewhere they suggest assuming the role of an anthropologist to observe deeply how customers interact with your products; visiting, or better yet, living and working in a foreign country; and finding ways to ensure that innovation is the task of each employee, not just top management.

Several chapters contain stimulating proposed exercises: to initiate an employee swap with another company, for example, as Google and Procter and Gamble did in 2008. Questioning is identified as an essential discovery skill because “questions are a critical catalyst to creative insights.” An exercise in the questioning chapter advocates group sessions devoted to “question-storming” – generating as many questions as possible on a given issue without giving in to answers – as one way to unlock different perspectives and understanding.

Also appealing in this book are the many anecdotes about famous innovators, such as Steve Jobs, whose experience auditing a Reed College calligraphy class inspired him, a decade later, to introduce different type fonts in the first Macintosh. Ratan Tata conceived India’s tiny, affordable Nano vehicle after watching a family of five huddled on a single motorbike in Mumbai. He gained lessons on marketing his car by observing how motorbike vendors at open-air markets offer on-the-spot driving instructions as well as lines of credit and insurance.

For Amazon’s Bezos, we learn, experimentation is key to the continued success of his company: It’s “the opposite of sticking to your knitting…the opposite of the ‘institutional no.’”

Though aimed at business groups, The Innovator’s DNA is a book that should interest a broad audience, including inventors, researchers, and professors seeking greater creativity in their teaching and research. Read it to find inspiration – and ways to put down your knitting.


Robin Tatu is a contributing editor of Prism.




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