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Are innovator’s born differently? Do they have a special something which eludes the rest of us? Or, can innovative traits be studied, understood, and learned? In a study of 72 innovators and 310 executives, it transpired that the innovators consistently demonstrated five key skills more than the regular executives.

Surprisingly, four of the skills are physical ones, and only one is cognitive. This suggests that you can take specific actions for more chances in creating novel ideas and that in terms of creativity, nurture rather than nature, holds the cards. These are what many authors call "discovery skills" and are explained in detail in the book The Innovator's DNA - let’s take a look at each of them.

Cartoon drawing depicts eager Amelia Earhart strapping on her cap with her plane in the background.

1. Associating

The first and only cognitive skill is associating. Innovators often put themselves - and excel - at the intersection between different disciplines. Think of Steve Jobs taking calligraphy classes, then applying that knowledge to the fonts on the Macintosh. Or Ada Lovelace, arguably the world’s first computer programmerwho was comfortable with both romantic poetry, deep mathematics, and algorithms. Her background in the Humanities helped her develop elegant solutions to further Charles Babbage’s famous Analytical Engine

Associating is the idea that you borrow ideas from one area then use them as inspiration in another. Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce.com, wondered why all software wasn’t like Amazon or eBay. Why do we need cumbersome installation steps and internal IT management overheads to get a piece of software running? And so began the idea of SaaS for CRM.

Design firm IDEO hires people who display T-shaped characteristics: being a deep expert in one field, but actively seeks out knowledge across a broad range of other fields. They then create teams with a diverse array of T-shaped skill sets. This collective diversity encourages and increases the amount of "associating" ideas and the ability to view and solve problems from a very wide angle.

In the book, A Whole New Mind, author Dan Pink suggests walking into a newsagent and randomly buying two or three magazines - not from your typical genre, but from quite the opposite. Read them, then see what connections and associations you can form to your work area. Doing this regularly can help to build up your ability to associate between different subjects. I’ve tried it and it’s stimulating every time.

Ideas are like building-blocks and the more you have of them, the greater the chance of finding ways to recombine ideas into something entirely new. Innovators are like kids in this respect, they love to collect ideas like kids love to collect and combine Lego bricks. Collecting as many ideas as you can, from as many different sources, creates a solid foundation for innovating.

Scatter plot illustrating the linear relationship between two factors.

The more ideas you have, the better. Source: The Innovator’s DNA.

2. Questioning

The research shows that innovators engage in far more questioning than non-innovators. They probe with the use of ‘What if?’ and ‘What is?’ questions. A.G. Lafley of P&G was famous for starting meetings with questions such as "Who is your target customer? What does she want? What kind of experience does she really want? What is missing today?".

A few years ago, a study found that kids can ask their mothers around 300 questions a day, with the most prolific being four year old girls, who can ask up to 390 questions. As adults, we don’t come close to this veritable interrogation of the world around us. But why? There are two strong inhibitors:

  1. The fear of looking stupid.
  2. Not wanting to appear uncooperative or disagreeable.

But innovators are different. They are those children who grow up, but never learn to stop questioning, and never have the fear of questioning instilled into them. Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos have been known for their questioning abilities. When Jobs returned to Apple in the 90’s, he asked people to consider the question: ‘What would you do if money were no object?’ Questioning is the turbocharger for innovation.

To involve that turbocharger within the innovation management platform of your coorporation, it is necessary to have enough functionalities that support questioning, or in other words: collaboration. For a company, collaboration is the secret sauce for innovation. Questions as comments can help to shape ideas into concepts more suitable for evaluation and further development. Commenting can also help to bring existing knowledge into the discussion, surfacing existing ideas, or people with expertise who can help. To enrich this feature, HYPE added the Multi-Perspective-Thinking feature to its HYPE Enterprise software, which is based on the concept of Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono. Participants can flag their comments as representing a specific perspective, like “sceptic”, or “creative”. You can also ask for additional perspectives, to enrich ideas with specific viewpoints and achieve a more balanced idea. This will help you gather innovative ideas without having only top innovators on board.

Even if we’re not Jobs or Bezos, and we grew out of our child-like questioning frenzy years ago, how can we improve our abilities today? Four ideas:

  • Run ‘Question Storming’ sessions - as an individual or team, identify a problem, then write down at least fifty questions to ask about this problem. Don’t tolerate answers, only allow discussion on questions. Once you’ve listed all the questions, prioritize the most important ones, then begin to work on solutions to them.
  • Translate statements into questions - take something like company targets or a set of personal goals, and reformulate them into questions. Doing so can help understand the problem better, and identify answers to help.
  • Track your Question/Answer ratio - across a variety of contexts (meetings, one on one discussions), track the number of questions you make, compared to the number of answers and comments you give. Seek to increase the ratio.
  • Keep a questions notebook - log the questions you make, and review periodically to see what types of questions work best (What if? Why? Why not? How might?). A technique used by Richard Branson, who has notebooks full of questions.

Bar graph illustrating that Innovator’s of different kinds tend to ask more questions than their non-innovator counterparts.

Innovator’s of different kinds tend to ask more questions than their non-innovator counterparts. Source: The Innovator’s DNA.

3. Observing

Steve Blank talks about the need for product managers to ‘get out of the building’, and what he means is, go and observe the customer in their environment, see what they see. There are no facts inside the building, only outside where the customer lives. This is the essence of the next skill: Observing.

Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata Group, famously observed families in India dangerously riding together on a single scooter. He wondered how this could be made safer for families, at a reasonable cost? This inspired the Nano, the world's cheapest car.

Tata was observing the job the customer was trying to get done, and how the current ‘product’ was not fulfilling that job well enough, and tried to solve that problem. Similarly at IDEO, they consider the role of the anthropologist to be the single biggest source of innovation at the company, because they look deeply at how humans operate in their environment. Observing the particular circumstances in which somebody ‘hires’ a product for a ‘job to be done’ creates a wealth of opportunity for innovation.

It’s common sense, but the reality is that most managers do not get out of the building and intensely observe customers. One idea is to schedule regular excursions, even if just for thirty minutes, to observe what jobs customers are trying to get done. Another idea is to look at companies and intensely observe how they work, what they do, how they get it done - treating it like a business school case study. Google and P&G famously swapped employees for several weeks to see how they can learn from observing each other’s way of working.

4. Networking

There are two types of networking skills: 1) resource networking - what people most associate with ‘networking’, which most executives are good at, selling yourself, your company, your products, to people who have the resources you seek; 2) idea networking, which is less common among executives.

Innovators excel at idea networking, seeking out diverse perspectives to gain fresh ways of seeing the world. They are not necessarily after resources, they are after the perspectives. The research shows that startup entrepreneurs are the best at this kind of networking.

Most executives are taught to be delivery-driven, in the sense that they are working towards company or career goals. So networking for them is about furthering those goals, by looking to sell what they have to people who have power, resources, influence. This also means looking for people who are similar to you.

Innovators tend to be discovery-driven, with the goal of finding people who sit in different social networks, and possess knowledge they don’t have. University of Chicago sociologist Ron Burt studied 673 managers in a large US firm, and found that those managers who had broader connections with people who did not connect with other managers, consistently had the most valued ideas. Quite simply, get out of your existing network and form connections with as many other networks as you can.

To improve your idea networking skills, consider these four tips:

  1. Expand your network diversity - make a list of the top 10 people you would speak to about a new idea. How many of them have very different backgrounds to you? How many are from another country? How many are under 20 years old, how many over 75 years old? See the table below as an example to fill in.
  2. Invite somebody new for breakfast or lunch - following Keith Ferrazzi’s idea to Never Eat Alone.
  3. Attend one or two conferences a year - on subjects completely unrelated to your field of expertise. TED is the ultimate experience, if you can get a ticket, and if you can’t, then watching the most popular talks online is a good starter.
  4. Start a creative community - begin with just a few people who you trust to be open to new ideas and thinking. Meet up once a month to share ideas, and discuss trends.

Template for assessing network diversity within your company

Assessing your network diversity. Source: The Innovator’s DNA.

5. Experimenting

We see it time and again, whether from Clayton Christensen himself, or from Eric Ries and the Lean Startup movement, experimenting is absolutely critical for innovation success. Jeff Bezos at Amazon is one executive who embodies the idea of experimentation:

“Experiments are key to innovation because they rarely turn out as you expect, and you learn so much … I encourage our employees to go down blind alleys and experiment. We’ve tried to reduce the cost of doing experiments so that we can do more of them. If you can increase the number of experiments you try from a hundred to a thousand, you dramatically increase the number of innovations you produce.” - Jeff Bezos on Innovation. Source: The Innovator’s DNA.

The research showed that innovator’s show a far higher degree of experimentation skills than non-innovators. When combined with the other skills of observing and questioning, it creates a potent mix. If you've spent the time watching customers, understanding their jobs to be done, and posing questions about the circumstances and potential solutions, then experimentation becomes a natural step to test those ideas.

Experiments help you gain insights, and each iteration of a build-measure-learn loop (The Lean Startup) gets you closer to understand the product/market fit. But the more observing and questioning you do, the less you need to experiment to find the answer, because you’ve already generated significant insights up-front. However, if you do less observing and questioning, then you simply need to run more experiments to gather the insights.

“The bottom line is that if you ask salient questions, observe salient situations, and talk to more diverse people, you will likely need to run fewer experiments.” - The Innovator’s DNA

Bar graph illustrating that Innovator’s of different kinds tend to ask more questions than their non-innovator counterparts.

Experimentation skills are a differentiator for innovators. Source: The Innovator’s DNA.

To develop skills in experimentation, you need to frequently approach scenarios with a hypothesis-testing mindset, asking: what hypothesis can we test to help us learn something new about this problem?

So there it is, the five skills innovator’s possess which set them apart from everybody else. The good news is that we can all improve our quota in each of them. The website http://innovatorsdna.com/ that accompanies the book has assessments and resources to help you improve.

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Tim Woods

Tim Woods

During his career, which also included a longer stay at HYPE, Tim has been working in the product development as in the marketing sector. With a background in software development, Tim has worked in
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