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The Innovators DNA: Interview with Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen

innovator's dna

A few weeks ago, I got the chance to interview the authors of the bestselling innovation book, The Innovator’s DNA.  Below is the transcript of what I was able to record from our call.

Before, here is short bio of each author:

Hal Gregersen is the Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank Chair of Innovation and Leadership at INSEAD and Jeff Dyer is the Horace Beesley Professor of Strategy at BYU’s Marriott School of Management. They are co-authors of The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators and most recently worked together on Innovator’s Accelerator, an online executive education experience designed to develop individuals’ and organizations’ innovation skills.

What was the motivation behind writing this book and what surprised you most about what you found?

Hal: I’ve had a lifelong commitment to understanding effective leadership. The capacity to innovate and create unique solutions has always been at the forefront of successful leadership. About ten years ago, Jeff and I asked Clayton Christensen: How do disruptive thinkers actually get the original ideas behind their businesses ideas, the ones that completely change the face of the world? None of us had a clear answer. Asking these questions created a fascinating chance to interview some of the most successful disruptive innovators on earth. We wanted to see how they got new ideas and how they made those ideas happen. So, for me it was an intriguing journey to understand what these folks do on a day to day basis to develop ideas that make a difference. One of the somewhat surprising insights from the research was that disruptive innovators definitely show consistent behavioral patterns. They act differently to think differently. We subsequently discovered in our global database of over 6,000 entrepreneurs and executives that anyone who chooses to act and think like famous innovators do can also generate ideas that make a difference.

Jeff: For me the primary driver of this project was a conversation that Hal Gregersen and I had with Clayton Christensen. We asked him: Where do these disruptive business ideas come from in the first place? He said: You know, I don’t really know.

And, then we thought, that would be interesting to study. The origins of these disruptive innovations.

And second, around that same time, I saw some research that had been done by psychologists looking at whether creativity was more genetically based or something that was learned. And saw that in fact it was something that was more learned than genetically based. So, there was something that we could actually study. If it’s not genetics, then what is it?  What is it that creative thinkers learn along the way? And what techniques do they use to help them get innovative ideas?

So, the combination of the conversations with Clay and knowing that it wasn’t just genetics was a prime catalyst for me to want to do this project.

As far as what surprised me most from the overall study, it was that creativity is really something you can learn. If you act different, then you can think different. I had bought into the right-left brain notion of genetic endowment that some have it and some don’t. And, I’m never going to be like Steve Jobs. I’m not going to try. But in the last couple of years I’ve been involved in creating some new products and starting a couple of new businesses. I never saw myself as an entrepreneur or as someone who gets to create new things but now, using the techniques that we uncovered in the study, I’ve realized that I can come up with some new things too.

Hal: What surprised me was that many of these leaders were not very articulate at explaining how they went about discovering new ideas. They were highly creative and built businesses that changed entire industries, but the businesses couldn’t sustain themselves over time. Part of this inability to build and sustain an innovative culture resulted from not knowing how they, as senior leaders, innovated at a personal level, and as a result, they failed at teaching others in their organizations how to do it equally well. In contrast, other innovative leaders who exhibited high self-awareness about how they personally generated new ideas were exactly the ones who excelled at teaching others how to discover and deliver new, disruptive ideas. Ultimately, innovation is not an individual sport.  It is a team sport and takes many people working together to generate great new ideas and then make them happen.

Jeff: As an example of that, Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, became very aware that it was his observations that lead to the ideas for QuickBooks and Quicken and he was really good at creating a set of training materials to share his experiences with the folks at Intuit. So he taught people how to become great observers and he built that as part of the company culture.

Hal: Disruptive innovators ask provocative questions, ones that challenge the status-quo. They have high question-to-answer ratios, asking far more questions than giving answers to others. The best innovators we encountered asked fundamental questions, as they tried to figure out what’s really going on. They often start with What is?- and Why?-centric questions in their search for understanding what was currently going on with customers. Once they understood well why people were doing what they did, innovators then moved to asking a series of What if?, Why not?, and How might? questions to uncover entirely new ways of approaching a situation. They endlessly pepper the world with inquiries to figure out what is before tackling the even bigger challenge of figuring out what might be.

Of the five skills, is there one skill in particular that is more important than all others? Why?

Jeff: Associational thinking is the most important of the five skills. If you practice the other skills, but don’t do associational thinking, you won’t get the impact you want.

The reason associational thinking is the most important is because the other behaviors bring in new knowledge that trigger the associations that actually produce the novel idea. So, it’s a cognitive skill. The other four are behavioral skills that have a cognitive dimension to them to some extent; you can just start asking questions and start doing observations and it starts a behavior. But, the ultimate goal is to put two things together that haven’t been put together in a new way to produce something that’s novel and hopefully useful and implementable, which is what we think about as innovation – a novel idea that’s useful and also doable.

So, what advice do you have for established companies that want to become more creative?

Jeff: What we’ve learned about the most innovative companies in the world is that they are comprised of people who score high on the five discovery skills, that they have some processes in place as they problem solve that encourage them to question, observe, network and to experiment. And, they have philosophies or cultures that encourage folks to innovate in the sense that they expect innovation.

For example, being a part of Apple or Google you are expected to innovate.

For people who think they are not creative, what would you advise them to do?

Hal: That is a great question. I think everybody has an opportunity or a challenge for which they don’t have a solution and they’re trying to figure out a good solution to it. So, the first stage of getting a new idea is caring about something enough to do something about it. So, find a problem or an opportunity that matters, one that matters in your head and your heart. The next step is learning how to generate better questions related to that problem, questions that might open up additional avenues to understanding it.  Imagine questions as catalysts that transform our understanding of a situation; they are the key that unlocks an entirely new problem solving direction. Years ago I stumbled across an innovative question generating technique that we now call Question Storming. Put simply, generate as many questions as you can about a problem or opportunity and then figure out which questions are most worth finding answers to. A simple way to start this process is to take the problem that you care about and set aside four minutes a day for the next 24 days to write nothing but questions about it. I would be very surprised if asking nothing but questions for about an hour and a half over the next 24 days would not start changing your understanding of a problem, as well as potential solutions. As new questions surface, use your observing, networking and experimenting skills to figure out surprising new solutions to a problem.

What are the obstacles to teaching innovation?

Jeff: Organizations are designed for execution and process – routine and repetition. There are three main obstacles to innovation in organizations. First, people say: Innovation is not my job….it’s R&D’s job.  Innovation is not expected of me. Second, folks say: I don’t get time for it and therefore it is not a priority. So they just don’t try. Third, many organizations simply don’t encourage and support risk taking behavior—and failure—which is part of the innovation process. So folks aren’t willing to try because there are too many risks and not enough rewards.

What is the easiest way to motivate someone to innovate?

Hal: The folks from the Apollo Group approached Clay, Jeff and me and provided this once in a lifetime opportunity to create an online learning experience where not just 10, 20 or 100 people but literally tens of thousands of people can rapidly increase their creativity skills. So, Apollo brought IDEO on to the team and we collaboratively figured out how to motivate people to become more creative. Basically, the Innovator’s Accelerator is a six-week learning experience with groups of 30 people within a company. Individuals are exposed to phenomenal high-end video learning material around key concepts from The Innovator’s Dilemma, The Innovator’s Solution, and The Innovator’s DNA. They also have access to fascinating case study video examples and to a highly engaging skill assessment at the beginning of the learning experience (because feedback is critical to becoming competent at anything). The Innovators DNA Assessment helps individuals understand their strengths as an innovator and the dynamic online report also shows them how to also strengthen their skills. Participants also actively participate in the social media space and use the innovation skills that they are learning with each other. Working in teams of five to six people, participants actively solve problems that matter and deliver greater value to their companies.

Historically Jeff, Clay or I have gone in and given a speech to senior level leaders, and perhaps done several workshops with other leaders at the mid- to senior-levels. But there comes a point in which our personal work (delivering live speeches and workshops) can only get us so far and the train-the-trainer model is still overly reliant on lots of other individuals still doing the labor intensive training. So, what’s happened with the Innovator Accelerator is that it has moved the process of delivering live workshops to relatively few senior leaders to enabling an entire company, in a very short period of time, to become much better innovators. It’s truly disruptive.

What are you most proud about this book?

Hal: We’re deeply proud of having been given the honor of interviewing and working with some of the most incredible innovators around the world, understanding how they do their work and being able to share that in a book that is easily accessible by anyone in the world (it’s now translated into thirteen languages). When anyone comes to realize that he or she can become a better innovator, that is a great day because at the end of the day we all have far more creative capacity than we think.

Jeff: I teach a creative strategic thinking class at BYU and see students seeking to become more creative. What I’m most proud of is that the book creates confidence in people’s ability to do things they didn’t think they were able to do.

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