Can Innovative Thinking Be Learned?

April 20, 2012 − by Jeff Bierer − in Articles of Interest − No Comments
Erica Swallow

Written by Erica Swallow, as first published in Forbes

[Note: I have had the pleasure of contributing to a number of breakthrough innovations, from launching the first prepaid international money transfer card to building the first consumer conditional loan.  I can testify to the validity of the five key innovation skills described by Gregersen, Christensen and Dyer.  Innovation may be found in the intersection of vision and process.  And for most of us, we CAN innovate by employing these skills in a mature process without waiting for the occasional bolt of visionary lightening. Jeff Bierer, Bierer Research Group]


Disruptive innovators — the likes of entrepreneurial masterminds Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Pierre Omidyar — think and behave differently. They possess a suite of skills that enable them to connect dots that the rest of us don’t usually perceive.

But are some of us born innovators and the rest of us just hopeless? Hal Gregersen, senior affiliate professor of leadership at INSEAD and co-author of “The Innovator’s DNA,” believes that there are five key skills that disruptive innovator’s possess: the cognitive skill of associating and the behavioral skills of questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting. And yes, all of us can learn to flex these innovator’s muscles, Gregersen told me in a recent interview.

Gregersen and co-authors Clayton M. Christensen (professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School) and Jeff Dyer (professor of strategy at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School), believe that roughly two-thirds of the skills it takes to innovate can be learned. They point to historical research findings that concluded 25-40% of human innovation stems from genetics as evidence.

In their own research involving hundreds of innovators and thousands of entrepreneurs, managers and executives from around the world, Gregersen, Christensen and Dyer boiled the formula of innovation down to five key skills:

  • Questioning allows innovators to challenge the status quo and consider new possibilities;
  • Observing helps innovators detect small details — in the activities of customers, suppliers and other companies — that suggest new ways of doing things;
  • Networking permits innovators to gain radically different perspectives from individuals with diverse backgrounds;
  • Experimenting prompts innovators to relentlessly try out new experiences, take things apart and test new ideas;
  • Associational thinking — drawing connections among questions, problems or ideas from unrelated fields — is triggered by questioning, observing, networking and experimenting and is the catalyst for creative ideas.

“When less famous people act like the famous ones, they actually achieve productive results, with ideas that create and transfer value and make a difference,” Gregersen says.

“The Innovator’s DNA” is a motivational read — from chapter to chapter, the authors dish out exercises designed to help readers strengthen each of the five skills necessary for innovation.

For those serious about improvement, the authors have developed an online skill assessment test that ranks a user on each of the skills and provides developmental feedback specific to the user’s scores in relationship to others who have taken the survey.

The report — along with exercises in the book — can feel a bit overwhelming. After all, how is a busy executive going to find time to work on all of these domains? Discouragement need not set it, though. Gregersen says that questioning is an essential skill, and from there, individuals should work on developing the skill they excel in.

“Innovation starts with a question,” Gregersen says. “Are you asking enough questions of the right kind?” If a person’s questioning skill scores are low, that’s the place to start, he says. You can kick off your journey with some relatively simple activities as outlined in the book.

“Everybody needs to ask great questions, but people diverge from there,” Gregersen says. “Go with your strength and don’t fight it,” he advises.

“Some people are observers, some are experimenters, some are networkers for ideas. Observers, they love to watch, see, look, hear — they are anthropologists, they are watchers. Networkers for ideas, they love to talk to people that don’t think and act like them — they’re talkers. Experimenters are the doers — they get their fingers into things, they try new things, they try prototyping.

Essentially, the story is to pick one — observing, networking or experimenting — whichever is your highest skill, leverage that. If it’s not high enough, make it better. You don’t need to worry about all three. That’s one of the pieces with this DNA: Each of us have our own signature strengths — we don’t need to be everything for it to work.”

To further this developmental process, the authors plan to release an Innovator’s DNA coaching application for smartphones and tablets. Slated for this fall, the app will help people “leverage this series of skills to solve problems that they care deeply about, but don’t have solutions to,” says Gregersen. The team also has plans for an online learning experience that is in the works as well.

“Everybody has problems to which they don’t have solutions,” says Gregersen. He says it comes down to committing to change. “I have more creativity and passion than I think, and if I try, I can come up with a creative or inventive solution to this problem. By leveraging these skills — with or without some electronic application — it really does come down to doing some things a bit differently than I did yesterday — asking a few more questions, paying a little more careful attention, talking to people who don’t think like me. Before you know, if somebody does these things, they really can get some interesting new angles on problems that are vexing them,” says Gregersen.