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

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By Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen
Harvard Business Review Press, 2011

In The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, a trio of professors – Jeffrey Dyer of Brigham Young University’s Marriott School, Hal Gregersen of INSEAD, and Clayton M. Christensen of Harvard Business School, outline the skills of innovative entrepreneurs and suggest how other individuals, teams, and organizations can learn them and promote their use. The result, they write, is a “pocket-size map…to your innovation journey.”

The five skills, all of which have to be present together, are associating (linking together ideas that aren’t obviously related), questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting. The first is a thinking skill and the rest are behavioral skills. The authors stress the behavioral aspects of innovative entrepreneurship, saying that usually, innovators must act differently first before they can think differently. Despite the DNA metaphor in the title, these skills are not genetic; they can be learned. Rather, say the authors, the DNA image is meant to conjure up the complex, dynamic relationship among the latter four behavioral skills, similar to that among the four chemical bases that comprise DNA.

There are some barriers to developing this DNA. The trio believes that the ability to innovate is usually based in a profound dissatisfaction on the part of the entrepreneur with the status quo. Also, this dissatisfaction is likely the result of early life experiences and cannot be easily acquired. Further, the five skills are about the discovery of value as opposed to its delivery, which is usually taught in the business schools and rewarded by many organizations. This, they say, is the primary reason why so many large companies fail at disruptive innovation: people with discovery skills have been driven away. But how such skills can be promoted in the normal delivery-driven company is unclear.

With the innovator’s DNA defined, the authors turn to their attention to how organizations and teams can build their discovery skills. They identify a list of the world’s “most innovative” companies by calculating the net present value of each company’s cash flows from its existing businesses, and comparing that figure to its market capitalization. When the market cap is the higher of the two numbers, an “innovation premium” exists – the market believes that the company will be able to generate growth by launching new products or entering new markets. Salesforce.com, the cloud-based sales software provider, tops the list of companies with innovation premiums, followed by Intuitive Surgical, which makes surgical robots. Apple and Google are fifth and sixth on the list respectively.

The book details the innovation DNA of these organizations using a people, processes, and philosophies framework. These firms hire innovative people, put processes in place to support individuals in their discovery journey, and embrace four guiding philosophies. The philosophies are:

  • Make it clear that innovation is everyone’s job
  • Ensure that disruptive innovation is part of our innovation portfolio
  • Deploy lots of small, properly organized innovation project teams, and
  • Take lots of smart risks in the pursuit of innovation

Implicit in these is an acceptance – even an embracement – of failure in the cause of learning. The realization of the philosophies in practice involves giving people the space and time to innovate, and getting the innovation priorities clear. Google, for instance famously allocates the engineering time in its innovation portfolio in the proportion 70-20-10 across the spectrum of derivative, platform, and disruptive innovation.

At the team-level, the authors cite the benefits of having members with complementary skills and the important role that trust plays in performance. They also highlight the role of process, suggesting that processes that mirror the discovery skills can transform B players into top-notch innovators, while processes that undercut them can crush even the most innovative individuals.

The research on which this book is based began its published life as an article in an academic journal in 2008 and then appeared as a popular article in the Harvard Business Review in 2009. In its exploration of the contextual challenges to innovation, this book represents a worthwhile expansion of those articles.

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