Opinion: Innovating like Steve Jobs

During the last few months, the media has been fixated on the life and legacy of Steve Jobs.

Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. Harvard Business Review Press, 2011.

Much of the coverage would seem to reinforce the common perception that creative and innovative capabilities are genetically endowed and those of us without such endowments are pretty much out of luck. 

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Well, all us left-brain types may have cause for rejoicing. According to this new book, innovative skills can be learned.

The use of the term DNA in the book’s title is initially a bit misleading. It quickly becomes clear that the authors’ intent is to demonstrate that innovation involves a set of behaviours that both individuals and organizations can master.

In The Innovator’s DNA, Brigham Young professor Jeffrey Dyer and INSEAD professor Hal Gregersen combine with well-known innovation scholar and Harvard professor Clayton Christensen to provide one of the most interesting books on innovation to come along in a while.

The book is based on an impressive piece of research. It is the result of an eight-year study of the origins of business innovations that included more than 100 interviews with the founders and CEOs of game-changing companies, such as Jeff Bezos, Mike Lazaridis and Marc Benioff. A survey based on these interviews was then sent to several thousand executives from around the world, including many leading innovators and innovative organizations.

The authors found that innovative entrepreneurs and executives behaved in a similar fashion when discovering breakthrough ideas. This pattern of behaviour, which they found distinguishes innovators from typical executives, involves five primary discovery skills that constitute “the Innovator’s DNA.” These skills include associating, observing, questioning, experimenting and networking. It’s a skill set they believe can be developed by anyone.

The first part of the book is organized around a discussion of these skills. The chapters in this section provide examples of how they have been employed by leading innovators and companies, as well as useful tips for developing each one. They also provide some interesting processes that can be used to internalize some of them, such as “Question Storming,” which is a system developed by the authors to brainstorm questions about a problem instead of the more typical focus on solutions.

Also highlighted is one of my longtime favorites – “the five whys,” which is a process developed by Toyota. It requires that when confronted with a problem, one should ask “why?” at least five times to unravel causal chains and come up with innovative solutions.

These chapters also contain several interesting tools, such as the 10 questions to ask while observing customers and a quiz to help you to identify your “discovery and delivery profile.”

The second part of the book explores how companies can build a strong foundation for innovation. Here, the authors draw on a sample of leading innovative companies and delve deeply into their practices.

This part is constructed around their “3P” framework that lays out the building blocks of highly innovative organizations: people, processes and philosophies.

One of their key conclusions is that innovative companies are almost always led by innovative leaders, which suggests that if you want innovation, it is important to have the requisite skills within the top management team of your company.

They found that in the world’s most innovative companies, senior executives did not just delegate innovation. They were deeply involved in it. They also populated the company with people like them. (The authors do, however, recognize that you also need to balance this with people who have the skills to deliver on the existing business model.)

In addition, these companies put processes in place to hire, train and reward discovery-driven people, and they have an overriding philosophy that innovation is everyone’s job, and a culture that encourages people to take smart risks.

This part of the book also provides some useful tools for determining the innovation potential of your organization or team and for evaluating its approach to taking risks. There is also an interesting set of guidelines for screening innovative people in your hiring process drawn from Apple, Google and Richard Branson.

Finally, the book also contains a very good appendix on developing discovery skills.

I think that you will find it a very worthwhile read and a useful addition to your innovation library.

Micheal Kelly is a professor and former dean at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management.

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