The Innovator’s DNA: What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Them
“Entrepreneurship” and “Innovation” are two terms that never go far from each other. Many times entrepreneurs are known to be innovators, and the best innovators are said to be in the best position to become successful entrepreneurs. Indeed, it is to be noted that the most successful entrepreneurs are those who were able to introduce innovations. They broke ground, they became pioneers, and they introduced something that the world has never seen before. As businessmen, they introduced products and services that the average consumer did not even know he needed.
Perhaps it is true that being an innovator is written in one’s genetic makeup; some are simply born with it. In short, it is written in their DNA. They call it the “innovator’s DNA.”
But not all entrepreneurs are born with this DNA. Most of them even readily admit that they needed help at some point or another. They also learned from other, better, innovators and entrepreneurs, which gives rise to the argument that, yes, even those who were not born with the “innovator’s DNA” can acquire it.
This sure gives hope to all aspiring entrepreneurs out there. It is comforting to know that there are some sources or aids that we can turn to in order to learn how to become innovative and, eventually, become a successful entrepreneur.
In this guide, you will learn 1) what is the innovator’s DNA, 2) how does the innovator’s DNA model work, and 3) the 5 skills of disruptive innovators you can acquire.
THE INNOVATOR’S DNA
Dubbed as a “new classic” by global leaders and the media, The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators is a 296-page book by co-authors Jeff Dyer, Hal B. Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen. It was published in 2011 by the Harvard Business Press. The book focused on disruptive innovation, and how it can be used to assess how individuals can develop innovative skills to get the results they want.
What made it more relevant to readers, especially during the current times, was how it tapped on real business situations and identified real and existing examples of innovators, such as the big guns and executives over at Apple, Amazon, Google and the Virgin Group.
The book refutes the idea that being creative and innovative is purely genetic, and only a select number of people are born with the capacity for creative thinking and coming up with innovative ideas. The authors argue that everyone can be creative and, subsequently, use that creativity to become innovators, at least in business.
We strongly recommend you watch this insightful speech about the innovator’s DNA.
The Theory of Disruptive Innovation
In business, we talk about markets, value, and consumers. We already have existing consumers within existing markets, which have existing value networks. All of a sudden, seemingly from out of nowhere, an innovation resulted in the creation of a new market and, along with it, a new value network. This also resulted in the disruption of the already existing market and value network.
It could be in the form of a new product or a service which, upon introduction, makes a huge splash in the market. It could also be a product or a service that barely registered on anyone’s radar when it first came out so it started out practically at the bottom of the market. However, through enhancements and refinements, it slowly made its way up in the market, eventually gaining the attention of the consumers. It also started to pose a threat to the incumbents of the market, first by stealing their customers and then by getting a larger piece of the market pie, so to speak. In both cases, there was a movement where established competitors are displaced.
The name for this theory, which was coined by Christensen, is “disruptive innovation”. In his theory, Christensen also made a clear distinction between “disruptive innovation” and “sustaining innovation”.
Disruptive innovation often involves exploiting new technologies, or harnessing old technologies in another way. It could also mean the development of new business models altogether. Whatever action was undertaken, it results in the creation of new markets, as well as the creation of new categories of users and consumers.
Sustaining innovation, on the other hand, is described as the simple improvement of existing products. No new markets were created, no new customer categories were formed, and certainly no new value networks were established.
THE INNOVATOR’S DNA MODEL
Innovative entrepreneurs are distinct from your regular and ordinary managers and executives; this is already a widely accepted fact. After acknowledging that innovators may be made, the next logical question would be: how could they come up with great, new, and innovative ideas?
Christensen introduced the Innovator’s DNA model for generating innovative ideas. The model is divided into three parts:
Courage to innovate
One of the biggest hurdles that entrepreneurs have to overcome is fear. Fear to start something new. Fear that, when they do, the results will not be what they wanted or expected. Fear that, once they are done, the results will not be accepted by the market. In other words, they have a fear of failure.
Even the slightest hesitation can make way for fear to take root, so that individuals will end up backing away from a potentially brilliant idea.
Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder and former CEO, was fearless. In his own words, he said he wanted to “put a ding in the universe”. He’s one of the classic examples of a disruptive innovator, and he also went on to become one of the greatest entrepreneurs and innovators of modern – perhaps even “all” – time. He was not afraid of change; instead, he sought to “change” the world. He was willing to take risks. He was brave. He was courageous.
Innovators also require certain behavioral skills in order to generate these brilliant ideas for innovations. Christensen specified four of these behavioral skills (which we will discuss in more depth later): questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.
Granted, all these four behavioral skills will not take shape if the entrepreneur does not have the courage to innovate to begin with.
Cognitive skill to synthesize novel inputs
Having the courage to innovate and the behavioral skills to amass valuable information for the generation of ideas are not enough. An entrepreneur must have the cognitive skill of taking all those ideas together, combining them, turning them around and manipulating them, and see what they come up with. This is called “associational thinking” or the fifth key skill, which puts everything together
All three, when combined together, will result to an innovative business idea.
In the following discussions, we will look further into the five skills that entrepreneurs should develop in order to become disruptive innovators.
THE FIVE SKILLS OF DISRUPTIVE INNOVATORS
The Innovator’s DNA named five discovery skills that have also become known as the five key innovation skills that entrepreneurs should have in order to become an innovator.
SKILL #1: QUESTIONING
Curiosity drives one to seek answers, or to gain clarity over something they do not fully understand. This is one trait that innovators have: they have a natural curiosity about a lot of things, and so they end up having a lot of questions and inquiries.
But it’s not just about asking questions, because their queries are provocative, mostly meant to challenge the current state of things, or the status quo. They ask questions not for the sake of getting answers and then moving on. Often, an answer to their first question will lead to more questions.
This is because innovators truly want to know why something is the way it is, or how something is done, so they can figure out how to change it or, more appropriately, disrupt it. There is an underlying desire to make things better, or come up with something bigger, and that is what spurred their questioning nature. As a result, you will find that innovators are the ones who ask the most “what if” questions, which then provokes further exploration of possibilities.
SKILL #2: OBSERVING
Gathering information can be done in various ways, and one of the best ways is to simply take a step back and observe the world around you. The best innovators have shown a keen power of observation and scrutiny. It was said that Steve Jobs came up with his ideas about the operating system later used by Apple’s Macintosh and iOS after spending some time observing how things are done over at Xerox PARC.
When it comes to observation, innovators should view the world like how anthropologists do. They act like social scientists in the sense that they are focused mostly on the behavior of their prospective market or potential customers.
Innovators are seen to be mostly imaginative individuals, but what many people tend to overlook is the fact that innovators make their imaginations work based on information they derive from real-life situations. This is why they tend to be closely observant of the world around them, or their immediate environment. A software developer may have built an innovative application because he saw a need for it after having seen one or two people actually have problems that need a solution. From there, he was encouraged to move forward with the idea until he was able to develop a software or program that solves the very problem he saw people struggle with.
SKILL #3: NETWORKING
This is a classic case of man not being an island. Networking is considered as one of the most important business practices. From the point of view of an entrepreneur, it is a skill that must be acquired in order to generate innovative ideas.
Interacting, communicating and establishing connections and ties with people, especially from different cultures and all walks of life, is a great way to gain inspiration and get new ideas. The more diverse the composition of your network, the better. This exposure to diversity is an effective catalyst to gain useful insights that, in turn, spur innovations.
People think differently, and that can be due to several factors, such as the environment, the culture and even the geographical location. You rarely see an innovator or entrepreneur succeeding just by staying within the basement or within the four corners of an office. Mark Zuckerberg had to interact with different students before he could come up with the idea of Facebook. The idea certainly did not pop into his head when he was locked up in solitude in his dorm room, contrary to what some reports may say.
SKILL #4: EXPERIMENTING
Practice makes perfect, and experimentation is a form of practicing. Entrepreneurs must learn how to be able to experiment in small and fast ways in order to come up with novel solutions. As mentioned earlier, many entrepreneurs buckle at the thought of trying out or testing their ideas. They do not have the courage to take the next step and pilot their ideas. They refuse to experiment. And this is where they fail and put a stop to their journey towards becoming innovators.
Experimenting not only serves to validate any hypothesis you may have established earlier. It is also one of the best ways for entrepreneurs to gain new information and insights. As an entrepreneur and an innovator, you have to always be on the lookout for new information. A thirst for knowledge is certainly something that the best innovators share.
For innovators, experimenting figures greatly in almost everything they do. By continuously experimenting, they often stumble upon new ideas and new products. A good example would be Amazon’s Kindle. Amazon used to be mainly an online retailer. However, through continuous experimentation, the creative minds of Amazon, led by founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, developed the e-reader they named Kindle, which then lit the fire and brought Amazon into electronics manufacturing. In fact, it is safe to say that this e-reader singlehandedly established Amazon as one of the most innovative electronics manufacturers today.
SKILL #5: ASSOCIATING
At the core of the innovator’s DNA is associating. This is a cognitive skill that innovators should never be without. In associational thinking, entrepreneurs attempt to make sense of all the inputs, which will then lead to new directions, new insights, and new ideas.
Take note that associational thinking will not be triggered if all the other four skills – questioning, observing, networking and experimenting – are not exercised. This is where all the insights acquired through the use of the other four skills, no matter how unconnected they are, are processed and synthesized to find connections. These connections will result into business ideas that are disruptive or able to deliver change.
According to Jobs, it’s not that innovators think differently; they just appear to do so because they look for, and are mostly able to find, the connections in the unconnected. What sets them apart from ordinary business people is how they can make surprising connections between and among unrelated industries, fields, and bodies of knowledge.
SALESFORCE.COM: AN EXAMPLE
A classic example cited in the book was Marc Benioff and his multi-billion software company Salesforce. Even at an early age, Benioff showed a passion for software and technology, setting up his own computer game development company, Liberty Software. Aside from gaining formal education in university, he also worked at Apple during summers. He was present when the first Macintosh was developed, until it was launched. He then worked at Oracle and, from there, saw some potential waiting to be tapped, especially in terms of technology and his own career advancement.
It was during his early start in business and throughout his time with Apple and Oracle that Benioff started questioning the status quo, feeling like something is about to come up. His experience on the “field” – working with his own company, with Apple and with Oracle – were contributory to the development of his networking skills.
Even as he was working behind the desk, he was already actively observing and noting how technology has grown and, along with it, significant changes in how commerce through the internet was evolving. The rise of eBay and Amazon throughout these technological shifts further cemented his conviction.
Benioff’s experimentation saw him taking a break from work and traveling to various parts of the world, spending significantly long periods in India and Hawaii, where he was able to put his observation skills to more use, and gained insights from the people he met along the way. This was also one way for him to expand his network.
But even before engaging in new surroundings through traveling, Benioff was already actively experimenting ever since he took up computer science and entrepreneurship in college and when he gained real-world experience during his time with Apple.
All these skills worked together to enable Benioff to perform associational thinking, so he made the connection between software and the business model of Amazon. According to Benioff, the “genesis” of Salesforce was “enterprise software meets Amazon”. Instead of selling software in its physical form – through a CD-ROM – software can be sold and delivered over the internet, cutting down on the time and cost associated with selling software, delivering them to the customers and guiding them along the lengthy installation process, not to mention the applicable upgrades.
Salesforce.com is now one of the leading cloud computing companies in the world, mainly engaged in providing customer relationship management, or CRM, service, such as Analytics Cloud, Community Cloud, Data Cloud, Marketing Cloud, Sales Cloud and Service Cloud.
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