Główna INNOVATOR'S DNA, UPDATED, WITH A NEW INTRODUCTION: mastering the five skills of disruptive...

INNOVATOR'S DNA, UPDATED, WITH A NEW INTRODUCTION: mastering the five skills of disruptive innovators

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A new classic, recommended by leaders and media around the world

In this bestselling book, authors Jeff Dyer (Innovation Capital and The Innovator's Method), Hal Gregersen (Questions Are the Answer), and Clayton M. Christensen (The Innovator's Dilemma, The Innovator's Solution, and How Will You Measure Your Life?) build on what we know about disruptive innovation to show how individuals can develop the skills necessary to move progressively from idea to impact.

By identifying the winning behaviors of the world's best innovators--from leaders at Amazon and Apple to those at Google, Tesla, and Salesforce--Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen outline five discovery skills that distinguish innovative entrepreneurs and executives from ordinary managers: associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting. Through real-world stories, the authors show you how to evaluate and develop your own innovator's "DNA code," including advice for how you can use the five skills to generate ideas, collaborate with colleagues to implement them, and sharpen your organization's competitive edge by building innovation skills into its culture. This innovation advantage will translate into a premium in your company's stock price--an innovation premium--which is possible only by building the code for innovation right into your organization's people, processes, and guiding philosophies. This book shows you how.

Now updated with a new preface and fresh examples, The Innovator's DNA is more than ever the essential resource for individuals, managers, and teams who want to strengthen their innovative prowess.

Harvard Business Review Press
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Discovery Skill #1


“Creativity is just connecting things.”

—Steve Jobs, founder and longtime CEO, Apple Inc.

INNOVATORS THINK DIFFERENTLY (to be grammatically correct), but as Steve Jobs put it, they really just think differently by connecting the unconnected. Einstein once called creative thinking “combinatorial play” and saw it as “the essential feature in productive thought.”1 Associating—or the ability to make surprising connections across areas of knowledge, industries, even geographies—is an often-taken-for-granted skill among the innovators we studied. Innovators actively pursue diverse new information and ideas through questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting—the key catalysts for creative associations.

To illustrate how associations produce innovative business ideas, consider how Marc Benioff came up with the idea for Salesforce, now a $100 billion software company. Benioff’s experience with technology and software began when, as a fifteen-year-old, he built a small software company, Liberty Software, writing computer games (like “How to Juggle”) on his Commodore 64. As a computer-science and entrepreneurship undergraduate, Benioff worked summers at Apple during the buildup and launch of the first Mac, learning firsthand what it meant to work in a think-different world.

After graduation, Benioff joined Oracle, then a small startup. By the time Benioff was twenty-five, he was leading Oracle’s entire direct-marketing division and was beginning to see several streams of opportunity emerging on the internet. “The nature of being successful with software is you always have to be looking for the next thing, so you have to condition your mind to think that way,” Benioff told us. “I’ve seen a lot of different technological shifts over the last twenty-five years, so as I was sitting at my desk at Oracle in the late nineties and watching the emergence of Amazon and eBay . . . it felt like something significant was on the horizon.”

Benioff decided it was time to think;  more deeply about the changing technological landscape—and his own career. So he took a sabbatical that started with a trip to India, where he met a variety of diverse people, including spiritual leader and humanitarian Mata Amritanandamayi (who helped strengthen his commitment to doing well and doing good in business). Benioff’s next stop on this global journey was Hawaii, where he discussed various ideas for new businesses with an assortment of entrepreneurs and friends. While he was swimming with dolphins in the Pacific Ocean, the fundamental epiphany for Salesforce surfaced. He reflected: “I asked myself ‘Why aren’t all enterprise software applications built like Amazon and eBay? Why are we still loading and upgrading software the way that we have been doing all this time when we now have the internet?’ And that was a fundamental breakthrough for me, asking those questions. And that’s the genesis of Salesforce. It’s basically enterprise software meets Amazon.”

Benioff’s synthesis of novel inputs or associations—“enterprise software meets Amazon”—challenged the industry tradition of selling software on CD-ROMs and engaging companies in lengthy, customized (and expensive) installation processes, and instead focused on delivering software as a service over the internet. That way, the software would be available 24/7, and companies would avoid all the costs and shutdowns associated with ongoing, large-scale IT system installations and upgrades. Given his substantial experience in sales and marketing at Oracle, Benioff felt that providing software services for managing a sales force and customer relations carried huge potential for small and medium-sized businesses that couldn’t afford customized enterprise software. Thus, Salesforce was born.

Benioff’s vision emerged from years of significant software-industry experience combined with countless questions, observations, explorations, and conversations that ultimately helped him bring together things that had never been connected before. He borrowed elements of the Amazon business model and built a different one based on a software system that companies would pay for as they used it, instead of paying for all of the software systems before they used them (as most software providers required). It was truly revolutionary, as it launched an era of “cloud computing” that seems obvious now but was far from obvious then.

Ever the juggler with a mind hooked on “combinatorial play” (or playing around with new associations), Benioff has continued the innovation journey, along with his Salesforce team. He explained that pre-Salesforce, his critical question was “Why isn’t all enterprise software like Amazon?” but post-Salesforce, a different question slowly took its place: “Why isn’t all enterprise software (including Salesforce) like Facebook?” Benioff and his team hotly pursued the answer and invented Chatter, a new social-software application that has been referred to as “Facebook for businesses.” Chatter takes the best of Facebook and Twitter and applies it to enterprise collaboration. (Think of it as “Facebook and Twitter meet enterprise software,” just as “enterprise software met Amazon” at Salesforce’s genesis.)

Chatter uses new ways of sharing information, such as feeds and groups, so that without any effort people can see what individuals and teams are focusing on, how projects are progressing, and what deals are closing. It changes the way companies collaborate on product development, customer acquisition, and content creation by making it easy for everyone to see what everyone else is doing. At companies using Chatter, inboxes have shrunk dramatically (by 43 percent at Salesforce), because the majority of communications are now status updates and feeds in Chatter. “Employees now follow accounts, and updates are automatically broadcast to them in real time via Chatter,” Benioff told us. “This is the true power of Chatter—bringing to light the most important people and ideas that move our companies forward. I call this social intelligence, and it’s giving everyone access to the people, the knowledge, and the insight they need to make a difference.”

Associating: What It Is

The great innovative entrepreneur Walt Disney once described his role in the company he founded as creative catalyst. By that he meant that while he himself didn’t actually do the drawings for the wonderful animated films or build the giant Matterhorn replica for Disneyland, he did put ideas together in ways that sparked creative insights throughout the company. One day, a little boy was curious about Disney’s job, and Disney vividly recalled the conversation: “I was stumped one day when a little boy asked, ‘Do you draw Mickey Mouse?’ I had to admit I do not draw any more. ‘Then you think up all the jokes and ideas?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I don’t do that.’ Finally, he looked at me and said, ‘Mr. Disney, just what do you do?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I think of myself as a little bee. I go from one area of the studio to another and gather pollen and sort of stimulate everybody.’ I guess that’s the job I do.”2 Not only did Disney spark others’ ideas, he sparked his own as well by putting himself at the intersection of others’ experiences. Over time, Disney’s associational insights—including a string of industry firsts such as joining animation with full-length movies and putting themes into amusement parks—changed the face of entertainment.

Innovative leaders at well-known companies such as Apple, Amazon, and Tesla do exactly the same thing. They cross-pollinate ideas in their own heads and in others’. They connect wildly different ideas, objects, services, technologies, and disciplines to dish up new and unusual innovations. “It’s very helpful to cross-fertilize ideas from different industries,” Tesla’s Elon Musk told us. “Sometimes a solution from one industry can apply to a different industry. That can be really powerful.” Musk continued by giving an example: “Tesla has borrowed ideas freely from SpaceX, including its extensive use of aluminum in both the body and chassis of the Model S, as well as drawing and casting techniques used to produce the aluminum bodies of SpaceX’s Falcon rocket . . . This is critical to keeping the car as light as possible.” This is how innovators think differently, or what we call associating,3 a cognitive skill at the core of the innovator’s DNA. In this chapter, we look more deeply into the workings of associational thinking and offer some techniques for developing this cognitive ability.

Associating: Where It Happens

Innovative ideas flourish at the intersection of diverse experience, whether it be others’ or our own. Throughout history, great ideas have emerged from these crossroads of culture and experience. Much like the twelve major streets of traffic converging on the circular road surrounding the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the more diverse our crossroads of experience, the more likely a serendipitous synthesis will occur. Put simply, innovators intentionally maneuver themselves into the intersection, where diverse experiences flourish and foster the discovery of new insights. As we mentioned in chapter 1, Frans Johansson coined the term “Medici effect”4 to describe the spark that occurs in a geographic space or market space where a combination of novel ideas coalesce into something quite surprising. Such Medici effects have occurred throughout history, ancient and contemporary.

For example, historians often refer to the period from the eighth to thirteenth centuries in the Islamic world as the Islamic “renaissance” or “golden age.” Centuries before the Italian Renaissance, Baghdad attracted the best scholars from the Muslim world. Cairo, Damascus, Tunis, and Cordoba were also influential intellectual hubs. Islamic explorers traveled to the edges of the known world and beyond. Mecca served not only as a religious center, but also as a key trading intersection for multinational merchants coming anywhere from the far western regions of the Mediterranean to the far eastern reaches of India. This Islamic renaissance produced significant innovations, many of which are relevant today, including the underlying principles and ingredients of lipstick, suntan lotion, thermometers, ethanol, underarm deodorant, tooth bleaching, torpedoes, fireproof clothing, and charitable trusts.5

The Medici effect occurred in the Islamic and Italian renaissances, but it has also happened in modern times and in many places around the world. For example, Silicon Valley in the 1960s was anything but silicon. Yet by the 1970s, all that had changed and technology innovation flourished during its renaissance decades of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Elsewhere in the world, countries and communities are actively attempting to create their own intersections of people with expertise in different fields to spark creative new ideas. China, for example, has bet substantial resources on its innovation future, to the extent that the rest of the world believes that China is on track to challenge the United States as the world’s most innovative country by 2020. In our work with the creative industries and social-innovation sectors in China (among many other sectors as well), we have found that they have dotted the land with artistic- and social-innovation incubators where ideas see not only the light of day, but also the light of practice.

The Medici effect also crops up in the many so-called “ideas conferences” that are flourishing—conferences such as the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland; the Aspen Ideas Festival; and TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) conferences, where diverse people join in a conscious attempt to cross-pollinate ideas and perspectives. Let’s explore the power of TED. People go to these conferences to rub elbows and exchange ideas with extraordinary people—those who are well known and those who aren’t. If you’ve never been to TED, take a look at its website to get a glimpse of how it creates a Medici effect year after year, and now in one geographical location after another (from TEDxTelAviv to TEDxRamallah to TEDxYourTown). A few of our personal TED favorites are Sir Ken Robinson questioning the foundation of educational systems, Kaki King experimenting far beyond what a guitar was originally intended to do, and David Gallo observing the incredible surprises of the deep sea (including the unexpected talents of squids). TED’s underlying beauty springs from the intentional diversity of participants and presentations. This diversity forms the foundation for innovators to potentially connect the unconnected.

Innovators in our research not only frequented places like TED, but literally constructed a TED in their heads through an intentional depth and diversity of life experience, creating a personal Medici effect. For them, TED-like conferences were icing on a cake that they had already baked by actively questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting throughout their lives. This incredible foundation of deep and diverse experience fueled their associational thinking far beyond that of noninnovators. Look at former PepsiCo chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi’s life to get a glimpse of where her TED in the head comes from.

Nooyi was born to a middle-class family in Madras (now Chennai), India, where she often sat with her mother and sister “thinking big thoughts.” She played girls’ cricket avidly and was lead guitarist in an all-girl rock band. (It’s no surprise that she later performed on stage at PepsiCo events.) She finished a multidisciplinary undergraduate degree in chemistry, physics, and math before getting her MBA in Calcutta. Nooyi then worked in the textile industry (Tootal) and consumer-products industry (Johnson & Johnson) before getting a master’s of public and private management at Yale. After graduation, she shifted to the consulting industry (Boston Consulting Group) before doing a strategic stint in the electrical power industry (ABB), ultimately arriving at PepsiCo, where she eventually became its first woman CEO.

Nooyi’s diverse professional and personal experiences convinced her that people, and especially CEOs, must “be willing to think disruptively.” She did exactly that for the 2010 Super Bowl. Instead of spending $20 million on two sixty-second television ad slots, Nooyi took an entirely different approach, “Pepsi Refresh,” emerging from a question she constantly asked: “How can we do better by doing better?” Pepsi Refresh invited people to submit ideas on how to “refresh” their communities, making them better places to live. Each month, the website accepted a thousand ideas about arts and culture, health, education, and so on. Online voting produced winning ideas, with grants ranging from $5,000 to $250,000. In 2010 alone, PepsiCo allocated $1.3 million each month to Refresh projects based on over 45 million votes cast. Pepsi Refresh’s Facebook numbers also topped 1 million by the end of 2010. This innovative project was part of a broader program that Nooyi initiated at PepsiCo called “Performance with Purpose.”

Associating: How It Works

To better grasp how associating works and why some people might excel at it more than others, it is important to understand how the brain works. The brain doesn’t store information as a dictionary does, alphabetically with, say, theater under T. Instead, while theater will associate with T, it will also associate with all of the other knowledge stored in the brain that the brain associates with it. Some associations with theater will seem logical, such as Broadway, showtime, or intermission, while others may be less obvious, such as kissing, acting career, or anxiety (perhaps due to a botched theater performance during high school). The more diverse knowledge the brain possesses, the more connections it can make when given fresh inputs of knowledge, and fresh inputs trigger the associations that lead to novel ideas. Scott Cook, founder and CEO of Intuit, describes these unexpected associations as “powerful and essential supplements to data” when working through a problem. Such analogies (or associations) are critical creative tools to help generate strategic insights.

For example, imagine you have developed a deep understanding of the business models of Uber and Airbnb, where a company creates a platform for transactions between those individuals (peers) who possess underutilized assets (e.g., cars or homes) and those who want access to rides and lodging. While thinking of different industry contexts, you might ask yourself: “How could I be the Uber of X?” Applying that peer-to-peer business model to other contexts (e.g., recreational vehicles, office space, boats, and even flowers and cocktail dresses) might produce some intriguing new ideas. In fact, two of our former students, Preston Alder and Joseph Woodbury, did just that when hitting upon the idea for Neighbor—which they pitch as the “Airbnb of storage.” Neighbor connects individuals who need storage space with those who have extra. So if you have a spare room or space in your garage, you can rent it out and make money. When the brain is actively absorbing new knowledge, it is more likely to trigger connections between ideas (thus creating a wider web of neural connections) as it toils to synthesize novel inputs. Accordingly, the associating “muscle” can also be developed through the active practice of questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.

In our research, every high-profile innovator excelled at associating (scoring at the seventieth percentile or higher on the innovator’s-DNA assessment), with process innovators showing slightly less associational skill than other innovators, yet still far more than noninnovators. (See figure 2-1.)


Comparison of associating skills for different types of innovators and noninnovators

Sample items:

Creatively solves challenging problems by drawing on diverse ideas or knowledge.

Often finds solutions to problems by drawing on solutions or ideas developed in other industries, fields, or disciplines.

Why were all innovators so much better at associating than noninnovators? Our analysis found that the best predictor of excellent associating skills was how often people engaged in the other discovery skills—questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting. For example, Benioff got the initial idea for Salesforce as he was asking, “Why isn’t all enterprise software delivered as a service the way Amazon delivers products?” BlaBlaCar founder Frédéric Mazzella got the idea for his carpooling business as he observed cars making long road trips with only drivers and extra seats. Uber cofounder Garrett Camp developed his idea for a black-car service while observing the limitations of taxis in San Francisco, but it wasn’t until he attended the LeWeb conference in France and had daily conversations with Travis Kalanick that the idea for a peer-to-peer mobility service came into focus. Disruptive innovators shine best at associating when actively crossing all kinds of borders (those of geography, industry, company, profession, discipline, and so on) and engaging the other innovator’s-DNA skills.

Finding the right question, making compelling observations, talking with diverse people, and experimenting with the world usually delivers productive, relevant associational insights. In contrast, neglecting the other innovator’s-DNA skills usually increases the randomness (and often irrelevance) of a new association or insight, resulting in less impact on the marketplace. For an example similar to the identical-twins scenario in chapter 1, consider two innovators independently attempting to surface valuable new associations. The first person engages actively and regularly in a full range of discovery skills. The second does not. Which is most likely to get relevant, high-impact ideas? Obviously, the first, since she’s been fully immersed in the world of real people facing real challenges while searching for a better solution. No surprise that her associational “ahas” are far more productive than her counterpart’s relatively “random” connections, likely made from the safety and distance of an office chair.

On the Hunt for New Associations

In our work with disruptive innovators, we found several things that best described the dynamics behind their search for new associations. Creating odd combinations, zooming in and zooming out, and Lego thinking allowed them to connect the dots across diverse experiences and ultimately deliver disruptive new business ideas.

Creating odd combinations

Years ago Neil Simon’s successful Broadway play and subsequent TV series The Odd Couple centered on what life was like when two very different people—a prissy newsman and a sloppy sportswriter—lived together as roommates. The friction between opposite lifestyles often resulted in the most unexpected (and often creative) outcomes. Similarly, innovators often try to put together seemingly mismatched ideas to compose surprisingly successful combinations. They create odd couples, triplets, or quadruplets by consistently asking, “What if we combined this with that?” or “. . . this, this, and this with that?” They think differently by fearlessly uniting uncommon combinations of ideas.

For Mike Lazaridis, founder of Research In Motion (maker of the BlackBerry device that was a mobile-phone breakthrough), connecting ideas across disciplines was something he learned relatively early in life:

When I was in high school, we had an advanced-math program and we had a shop program. And there was this great divide between the two departments, and I was in both. And I became, inadvertently, the ambassador between the two disciplines, and saw how the mathematics we were learning in shop was actually more advanced than some of the mathematics we were learning in advanced math, because we’re using trigonometry, we’re using imaginary numbers, we’re using algebra, and even calculus in very real, tangible ways. So I was then tasked with bridging the gap and showing how math is used in electronics and how electronics is used in math.

Lazaridis noted that a teacher alerted him to the link between computers and wireless by telling him, “Don’t get too distracted with computer technology, because the person that puts wireless and computers together is really coming up with something special.” And so the BlackBerry was born.

Likewise, Google cofounder Larry Page created an odd combination by connecting two seemingly unrelated ideas—academic citations with web search—to launch Google. As a PhD student at Stanford, Page knew that academic journals and publishing companies rank scholars by the cumulative number of citations each scholar gets each year. Page realized that Google could rank websites in the same way that academic citations rank scholars. Websites with the most hits (in other words, that were most frequently selected) had more citations. This association allowed Page and cofounder Sergey Brin to launch a search engine yielding far superior search results.

Sometimes the world’s most innovative leaders capture what seem like fleeting associations among ideas and knowledge, mixing and matching quite different concepts. In so doing, they produce the occasional outlandish idea that may be a catalyst for innovative business ideas. The founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, gave us an example of how he came up with a wild idea. He had spoken with consultants who were trying to solve the problem of how to get produce quickly from the farm to consumers in Hawaii before it spoils (the consultants explained that roughly one-third of the produce spoils). The first question Omidyar asked was, “What about the post office? Doesn’t the post office go to everybody’s house six times a week? Why don’t we just mail the head of lettuce?” He then admitted: “It was probably an incredibly stupid idea, and there are probably a dozen reasons why it won’t work, but it’s an example of how I put two things together that haven’t been put together before. I understand the post office very well because eBay counts on shipping companies for the business model to work. The post office is an organization that visits every household six times a week! Do you know any other organization that does that? So using those assets in novel ways might be interesting.”

Not everyone would consider putting “fresh produce” and “post office” together, but that’s the kind of thinking that increases the probability of surfacing an innovative business idea.

Zooming in and zooming out

Innovative entrepreneurs often exhibit the capacity to do two things at once: they dive deep into the details to understand the nuances of a particular customer experience, and they fly high to see how the details fit into the bigger picture. Synthesizing these two views often results in surprising associations. Niklas Zennström (cofounder of Skype) explained this process of zooming in and zooming out based on his own experience: “You have to think laterally. You know, seeing and combining certain things going on at the same time and understanding how seemingly unrelated things could have something to do with each other. You need the ability to grasp different things going on at the same time and then to bring them together. For example, I can look at the bigger picture and also have a very good feel for the details. So I can go between high-level things to really, really small details. The movement often makes for new associations.”

Steve Jobs mastered zooming in and out to create excellent and often industry-changing products. At one point, when designing the original Mac computer, his team struggled to get the right finish on the plastic. Jobs unblocked the logjam by going to a department store and zooming in on the details of different plastic appliances. He discovered a Cuisinart food processor that had all the right plastic-case properties for producing an excellent case for the first Mac. In other instances, he visited the company parking lot to examine details of different cars to gain new insights about current or future product-design challenges. One time, his parking-lot excursion revealed a Mercedes-Benz trim detail that helped resolve a metal-case design dilemma.

Jobs was equally adept at zooming out to detect unexpected intersections across diverse industries. For example, as a result of buying and then leading Pixar for over a decade, he acquired a perspective on the entire media industry that was quite different from one he had gained earlier in the computer industry. This produced a powerful intersection of ideas when he returned to Apple. Years of personal negotiation with Disney executives about distribution rights and income for Pixar movies gave Jobs the insight and experience that later helped him create a workable solution to internet-based music distribution—a solution that escaped senior executives at other computer and MP3-player companies. Jobs’s Pixar experience provided the broad cross-industry perspective that fueled the invention of several game-changing ideas, such as iTunes, iPod, iPad, and iPhone.

Lego thinking

If innovators have one thing in common, it is that they love to collect ideas, like kids love to collect Legos. Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling advised that “the best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.”6 Thomas Edison kept over thirty-five hundred notebooks of ideas during the course of his lifetime and set regular “idea quotas” to keep the tap open. Billionaire Richard Branson is an equally passionate recorder of ideas, wherever he goes and with whomever he talks. Yet absolute quantity of ideas does not always translate into highly disruptive ideas. Why? Because “you cannot look in a new direction by looking harder in the same direction,” says Edward de Bono, author of Lateral Thinking. In other words, getting lots of ideas from lots of different sources creates the best of all innovation worlds. Innovators who frequently engage in questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting become far more capable at associating, because they develop experience at understanding, storing, and recategorizing all this new knowledge. This is important because the innovators we studied rarely invented something entirely new. More often, they simply recombined the ideas they had collected, in new ways, allowing them to offer something new to the market. Questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting helped innovators slowly build larger, richer stocks of building-block ideas in their heads. The more building blocks they acquired, the better they were able to combine newly acquired knowledge to generate a novel idea.

To illustrate, think about a child playing with a set of Lego blocks. The more different kinds of blocks the child uses to build a structure, the more inventive she can become. But the most innovative structures spring from the novel combination of a wide variety of existing Legos, so as the child acquires different Lego sets (for example, combining a Sponge Bob set with a Star Wars set), she gets even better ideas for new structures. Similarly, the more knowledge, experience, or ideas you add from wide-ranging fields to your total stock of ideas, the greater the variety of ideas you can construct by combining these basic knowledge building blocks in unique ways. (See figure 2-2.)


Why boosting your diverse idea stock increases innovation

Conceptually, as innovators increase the number of building-block ideas, they substantially increase the number of ways they might combine ideas to create something surprisingly new. Combining this with that creatively (building odd combinations) depends on how many unique this and that building blocks people have cached in their heads over time.a

a. Mathematically, as the number of different building-block ideas (N) in our heads grows linearly, the potential ways to recombine those ideas grows even faster, or geometrically (by N(N − 1)/2).

People with deep expertise in a particular field, who can combine that knowledge with new concepts and ideas unfamiliar to them, tend to be more creative. This is why innovation design firm IDEO tries to recruit people who demonstrate a breadth of knowledge in many fields and a depth in at least one area of expertise. IDEO describes this person as “T-shaped,” because the person holds deep expertise in one knowledge area but actively acquires knowledge broadly across different knowledge areas. A person with this knowledge profile typically generates innovative associations in two ways: (1) by importing an idea from another field into his area of deep expertise, or (2) by exporting an idea from his area of deep expertise to one of the broad fields he is exploring where he has shallow knowledge.

For example, a consultant with manufacturing expertise working at Bain & Company happened to visit with hospital administrators after the US government implemented fixed-cost reimbursements to reduce health care costs. The hospital needed new ways to reduce costs, something it hadn’t focused on when the government reimbursed for actual expenses plus a 10 percent profit markup. During the discussion, the Bain consultant—with deep expertise in the manufacturing sector—asked how the hospital managed patient throughput, minimizing the “touches” to the “product” (patient) and speeding its throughput through the “plant” (hospital). These manufacturing-sourced ideas were completely foreign to the hospital, where processes focused on keeping the patient longer to ensure quality care (and kept expenses and profits high). These new ideas from an entirely different industry delivered a dramatic redesign of hospital processes designed to get the patient through the hospital (like a plant) as quickly as possible. Within five years, Bain was working with over fifty US hospitals applying these ideas to reduce costs.

A Safe Place for New Thoughts

After years of building a large stock of ideas through active questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting, innovators often make the most surprising associations—sometimes an association or idea sparked at the very moment they were engaged in questioning, observing, networking, or experimenting (as described in chapters 3 through 6). Equally often, innovators uncover new ideas while in a relaxed state, without distractions, when they are not “trying” to solve a problem (researchers describe this as “defocusing their attention”). In other words, it rarely happens during a meeting when they are in a focused, convergent thinking mode searching for a solution to a particular problem. Instead, Diane Greene (cofounder of VMware) told us that “the shower” is a great place to relax and think to get new ideas—a place frequently pitched by many innovators we interviewed, including David Neeleman (founder of JetBlue and Azul) and Jeff Jones (founder of Campus Pipeline and NxLight). Innovators also unearth new ideas while walking or driving, while on vacation or in the middle of the night (as former PepsiCo CEO Nooyi did). Marc Benioff got the key inspiration for Salesforce when “swimming with the dolphins.” In addition to hitting the shower, Greene gets some of her best new associations when sailing solo (which she has done since childhood). In short, Greene explained, “You get more creativity by giving yourself the space for ideas to simmer. Ideas come from having a longer time horizon about what you’re thinking about and a broader view of where the idea might be going to go.” The point is that you can sometimes spend too much time deliberately attacking a problem, when in fact some creative ideas will emerge only after you put yourself in a relaxed state with no distractions.7 If all else fails when trying to figure out a problem, go to sleep. Yes, Harvard researchers have found that sleep is a consistent antidote to tunnel vision toward a problem. So when you find yourself stuck in a thinking rut, give the problem extra time to percolate by adding some sleep into the mix. On average, that sleep will give you a 33 percent better chance of connecting the unconnected and getting a great new idea.8

The best innovators generally know their safe places and times for generating new ideas. Do you? If not, look for places of transition or relaxation. Some folks find their best ideas early in the morning; others late at night. Whatever works best for you, make sure that you make the time to just meditate and think.

Disruptive innovators force themselves to cross borders (technical, functional, geographical, social, disciplinary) as they engage in the other discovery skills. If we do the same, placing ourselves in the midst of bustling intersections of diverse ideas and experiences, exciting associations will naturally happen. “Creativity is just connecting things,” as Steve Jobs once put it. He continued, “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something . . . they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”9 The discovery skills of questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting will trigger surprising associations as we exercise them, over and over. Whether pursued out of the office or in a conference room, great associations are more likely to unfold when we create a safe place for them to happen. In time, your capacity to craft creative solutions to problems will become powerful, at work and beyond.

Tips for Developing Associating Skills

To strengthen your capacity to think differently and weave together unexpected connections across ideas, consider the following short- and long-term exercises.10 Most take relatively little time, but when done consistently, they can deliver positive results in generating new ideas. We have found that these exercises can work for creatively solving senior-level strategic problems as well as factory floor–level production challenges.

Tip #1: Force new associations

Innovators sometimes practice “forced associating” or combining things that we would never naturally combine. For example, they might imagine (or force) the combination of features in, say, a microwave oven and a dishwasher. This could deliver an innovative product idea, such as a dishwasher that uses some type of heating technology to clean and sanitize dishes, eliminating water completely. Or in the case of actual appliance companies, EdgeStar produced a countertop-size dishwasher, while KitchenAid went for an in-sink approach. Both are the size of a microwave oven, use limited amounts of water, and wash far faster than a full-size machine.

To practice forced associations, first consider a problem or challenge you or your company is facing. Then try the following exercises to force an association that you normally wouldn’t make:

Pick up a product catalog and turn to the twenty-seventh page. What does the first product that you see have to do with the problem you are thinking about? Does the way it solves a problem for a customer have anything to do with your problem? For example, what if you run across an iPad product in your random page flipping and your work challenge is figuring out how to increase herbal-tea sales? Looking at an iPad might spur surprising syntheses, such as creating a novel iPad app to capture the interest of potential customers (or provide a means for current customers to become repeat customers).

Or, open a completely random Wikipedia entry by choosing a random article from the Wikipedia web menu. A random click might land on boomerang. Perhaps your organization hopes for more-appealing product packaging. Bumping into the idea of a boomerang might suggest packaging a customer can return or a self-returning package after the product is used.

Now, back to the challenge you or your company is facing. Try one of these forced-association exercises, identify an unrelated random item or idea, and take the time to reflect on what it has to do with your problem. The point is to randomly find things to associate with your problem and work your best to freely (even wildly) make associations, lots of them (remember, lots of associations can lead to great ideas). As you do so, table 2-1 might help organize your insights.


Forcing new associations

Tip #2: Take on the persona of a different company

Follow the lead of TBWA, which often holds a designated “disruption day” to get new ideas.11 After defining a key strategic question or challenge, TBWA people haul out large boxes full of hats, shirts, and other things from some of the most innovative companies in the world, like Apple and Virgin. They put on the clothing and assume the persona of someone from that company to look at their challenge from an entirely different perspective.

Alternatively, write down a list of companies (in related and unrelated industries) on a stack of index cards (or randomly go down the list of the Fortune 500 or Inc. 100 companies). Use the card stacks to create random pairings of your company with another. Then creatively brainstorm ideas on how the two could create new value through partnership or merger. By combining the strengths of both companies, you may surprise yourself with new products, services, or process ideas.

Tip #3: Generate metaphors and analogies

Engage in activities that provoke an analogy or metaphor for your company’s products or services (hopefully escaping from idea ruts), because each analogy holds the potential for seeing things from an uncommon perspective. To illustrate, what if watching TV were more like reading a magazine? (This is how TiVo changed TV watching. You can start and stop when you want, skip over advertisements, and so on.) Or, what if your product or service could incorporate the benefits of some of today’s hottest products, like Amazon’s Alexa or virtual reality headsets? What might those new features or benefits be? (See table 2-2.)


Generating metaphors

List of products (“what if” metaphor) Possible new features/benefits

Alternatively, apply an analogy from a situation you know well to a new context. For example, the business model used by Uber and Airbnb involves connecting those who have valuable, underutilized assets (e.g., cars or apartments and homes) with those who want access to those assets (e.g., rides and lodging). Think about other contexts where that peer-to-peer business model might work. Where could you be the “Uber of X”? This type of analogic reasoning is what triggered the ideas for RVshare (connecting recreational-vehicle owners with renters), Neighbor (connecting storage owners with those who need storage), GreenPal (connecting lawn mowers with lawn owners), and BloomThat (connecting those with fresh flowers with those who want them).

Tip #4: Build your own curiosity box

Start a collection of odd, interesting things (e.g., a slinky, model airplane, robot, and so on) and put them in a curiosity box or bag (as people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did when they used curiosity cabinets to store interesting objects from around the world). Then, you can pull out unique items randomly when confronted with a problem or opportunity (and if you’re really daring, display them on your office shelves). When traveling (or even at home), visit local secondhand shops and flea markets in a new city to pick up surprising treasures (ranging from a Kuwaiti camel bell to an Australian didgeridoo) that might provoke a new angle on an old problem.

Interestingly, the global innovation design firm IDEO devotes full-time employee effort to finding new things for its “Tech Box.” IDEO designers rely on Tech Box items (each box has hundreds of high-tech gadgets, clever toys, and a wide variety of items) when brainstorming for new ideas, because odd, unusual things often trigger new associations. It may sound silly, but seemingly silly things can provoke the most random associations, literally forcing us out of our habitual thinking patterns.

Tip #5: SCAMPER!

Try Alex Osborn and Bob Eberle’s acronym for insight, SCAMPER: substitute; combine; adapt; magnify, minimize, modify; put to other uses; eliminate; reverse, rearrange. Use any or all of the concepts to rethink the problem or opportunity you are addressing. This is particularly useful when thinking of redesigning a product, service, or process. Michael Michalko’s Thinkertoys is a useful resource for more details about the SCAMPER method. (See table 2-3.)


The SCAMPER method

SCAMPER challenge Invent a new type of wristwatch

Substitute Use natural wood or rocks instead of steel material.

Combine Create a space for easy, instant access to medications when the alarm goes off.

Adapt Use the wristwatch as a reflective mirror when lost.

Magnify, minimize, modify Make the wristwatch face large enough to be a cupholder.

Put to other uses Frame the watch as a work of art.

Eliminate Remove the internal workings of the watch and replace them with a sundial.

Reverse, rearrange Change the watch hands to go counterclockwise.

Put the watch face on the inside of the wristband to make the back of the watch the focal point in terms of design and fashion.


Discovery Skill #2


“Question the unquestionable.”

—Ratan Tata, former chairman, Tata Group

“ANY QUESTIONS?” MOST OF us have heard that phrase hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Sometimes it comes at the end of a presentation or meeting, and most of us shuffle away because we don’t really think it is an open invitation to question. But other times, you may have real questions—about why things are the way they are and how they might be different—but you don’t ask them. You need to. If disruptive innovators occupied the same room, they would fill the empty space with thought-provoking questions. Why? Because questioning is how they do their work. It is the creative catalyst for the other discovery behaviors: observing, networking, and experimenting. Innovators ask lots of questions to better understand what is and what might be. They ignore safe questions and opt for crazy ones, challenging the status quo and often threatening the powers that be with uncommon intensity and frequency.

Take Orit Gadiesh, the famously inquisitive and inventive chairman of Bain & Company. As a child growing up in Israel, she was fascinated by many things and “always asking a hundred questions.” Her parents also encouraged her to ask questions when called on in class, and she did. So much so that her eighth-grade teacher wrote in her yearbook: “Orit, always ask those two questions, and even a third and a fourth question. Don’t ever stop being curious.” When reading this teacher’s comment, Gadiesh realized for the first time that “asking questions was the true way to go.” Later in life, she relied on the same approach to cocreate client insights at Bain, knowing that “asking clients lots of questions is key to generating powerful solutions to problems.”

For example, in the early 1980s, Gadiesh was fresh out of graduate school and new at consulting. She was assigned to help a steel-manufacturing client cut its costs to stay competitive. During her first visit to the plant, she was warned by the over-sixty-year-old CEO that women were “bad luck in the industry.” Undaunted, she pressed forward with the client, asking question after question about why it was doing what it was doing. At the time, there were two ways to make steel, the standard process of pouring it into ingots or, alternatively, continuous casting (then a new technology), where you literally cast the steel continuously and cut it into slabs.

After reading about the continuous-casting process and sensing its potential, Gadiesh visited Japan to observe continuous casting firsthand. She left the country convinced that the new process could create significant value for her client. But the client’s executives and salespeople kept telling her that they couldn’t do it because they had three hundred fifty different products for customers and it was impossible to continuous cast that many products when you have to add other materials to the steel simultaneously. “The client was stubborn, completely convinced that they couldn’t make the change,” she told us.

Here’s where Gadiesh’s questioning skills best tackled the client’s problem. She went to visit the steel maker’s customers and started asking questions, “Do you really need three hundred fifty products?” “Why do you need all three hundred fifty products?” Their initial autopilot answer was yes, but as she probed further with additional questions, it became clear that customers didn’t fully grasp the cost advantages that continuous casting offered due to its unique capacity to add other (lower-cost) materials during the steel-casting process. Working with the client and its customers, Gadiesh literally went through each of the three hundred fifty products asking, “Why do you have this? What is its core importance?” to fully grasp why they made each thing they made.

Based on the rich information gleaned from asking a series of simple questions about why each product existed, Gadiesh naturally moved from understanding what was to exploring in depth what might be. She moved deeper into disruptive territory by asking fundamental questions, such as: “What if we shrink the existing product line by 90 percent?” “What if we cast steel continuously with that sharply reduced product line?” “How might we maximize the addition of cost-saving materials when casting the steel?” Before long, the steel company executives realized that reducing the number of products from three hundred fifty to thirty not only was possible but was the most profitable course of action because it would give them a competitive advantage in the product segments in which they did compete. This allowed the company to add other materials, such as aluminum (thus reducing costs), through a new continuous-casting process, while still meeting most of its key customers’ needs. The client (then a little over a billion-dollar enterprise) built a new production facility and quickly raced ahead of US competitors.

Gadiesh’s ability to generate new insights is largely based on her ability to ask her way into what’s really going on and then push the edge with constant, provocative questions about what might be. At the core, she believes that “when you persist in asking questions throughout life—particularly challenging ones—it’s central to who you are and how you lead.” In fact, she shared with us that in a recent meeting with several heads of state and CEOs, she was curious as to why they weren’t asking more fundamental questions about key policy issues. One CEO confided to her: “When you’re in the room, I don’t have to ask the fundamental questions because I know they’re going to be asked.” Her deeply rooted instinct to ask has helped her successfully guide Bain & Company since about 2000. It’s no wonder then that one of Gadiesh’s key steel-industry clients once gave her a hard hat engraved with the phrase “A little light will lead us,” referring not only to her first name, Orit, which means “light,” but also to her light-generating questions that helped transform the company’s business.

What Is “Questioning”?

Questions hold the potential to cultivate creative insights. Einstein knew this long ago, as he often repeated the phrase, “If I only had the right question . . . If I only had the right question . . .” No wonder he finally concluded that “the formulation of a problem is often more important than its solution” and that raising new questions to solve a problem “requires creative imagination.”1 In The Practice of Management, Peter Drucker grasped the same power of provocative questions, observing that “the important and difficult job is never to find the right answers, it is to find the right question. For there are few things as useless—if not dangerous—as the right answer to the wrong question.”2 Recent research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi confirmed these personal convictions by finding that Nobel laureates were far better at achieving breakthroughs once they found the right question to reframe their problem.3 Our research also found that disruptors rely on crafting the right questions to accomplish their work. (For a more in-depth exploration of what causes disruptive leaders to ask catalytic, even transformational, questions, see Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life, by Hal Gregersen.)

Questioning is a way of life for innovators, not a trendy intellectual exercise. Our research found that not only do innovators ask more questions than noninnovators, they also ask more-provocative ones. (Innovators who “strongly agreed” with survey statements such as “I often ask questions that challenge the status quo” produced twice as many new businesses than innovators who simply “agreed.”) Among the different types of innovators we studied, product innovators showed the highest reliance on questioning to deliver results, followed by startup and corporate entrepreneurs and, finally, process innovators. (See figure 3-1.)


Comparison of questioning skills for different types of innovators and noninnovators

Sample items:

Asks insightful “what if” questions that provoke exploration of new possibilities and frontiers.

Often asks questions that challenge the status quo.

By asking lots of questions, A. G. Lafley, for example, helped change the game at Procter & Gamble (P&G). Lafley often began conversations or meetings with: “Who is your target consumer here? What does she want? What do you know about her? What kind of an experience does she really want? What does she think is missing today?” Or when working within categories, Lafley often asked, “How well do you understand the different segments of consumers—not so much what we know about them demographically, but psychographically? What do we know about their biggest desires that aren’t met today? What are they most unhappy about today?”

After searching for a deep understanding of what is, Lafley shifted lines of inquiry to powerful what-if questions to help deliver customer-centric innovations. For example, if talking to someone about science and technology or a product need, he asked: “What else is available in the world? Where else might we access what we need? Who across P&G—thinking across our business units or outside of P&G—could help us get what we need in the time frame and cost structure that we want?” Most of all, Lafley was constantly hunting for counterintuitive questions. Instead of asking, “How can we help consumers get floors and toilets clean?” he would query, “How can we give consumers their Saturday mornings back?” He found the latter question far more fruitful for surfacing rich insights about what might be in order to develop new products and services that consumers would want to “hire” to get their jobs done at home. No wonder Lafley’s weekly question to himself was, “What will I decide to be curious about Monday morning?”4

How to Ask Disruptive Questions

Innovators constantly question common wisdom. Aaron Garrity, founder of XanGo (an innovative health and nutrition company that was acquired by Zija International in 2017), put it simply, “I am questioning, always questioning, with a revolutionary mindset.” Innovators’ provocative questions push boundaries, assumptions, and borders. They leave few rocks unturned when they cultivate the garden. During interviews with disruptive innovators, we noticed not only a high frequency of questions but a pattern as well. They started with a deep-sea-like exploration of what currently is and then rocketed to the skies for an equally compelling search for what might be. Focusing on what is, they asked lots of who, what, when, where, and how questions (as world-class journalists or investigators do) to dig beneath the surface and truly “know the place for the first time” (as poet T. S. Eliot observed). They also invoked a series of what-caused questions to grasp the drivers behind why things are the way they are. Collectively, these questions help describe the territory (physically, intellectually, and emotionally) and provide a launching pad for the next line of inquiry. To disrupt the territory, innovators puncture the status quo with why, why-not, and what-if questions that uncover counterintuitive, surprising solutions. Whether descriptive or disruptive, the questions innovators perpetually invoke help get beneath the surface of everyday action to discover what’s never been.

Describe the Territory

Innovators treat the world as a question mark, rarely working on autopilot and constantly challenging the accuracy of their mental maps about the territory (whether products, services, processes, geographies, or business models). Suspended comfortably between a faith in and doubt of their maps, the best innovators remember that their views of the world are never the actual territory. Intuitively, they rely on a rich assortment of questions to develop a deep understanding of how things really are, before probing intensely into what they might be.

Tactic #1: Ask “what is” questions

Disruptive innovators leverage a variety of what-is questions to surface unexpected subtleties. For example, Pierre Omidyar’s work as a software architect (before he founded eBay) sharpened his what-is questioning skills by focusing on user interfaces and trying to make software less complicated. (His first startup was a pen-based computing application that attempted to make technology easier to use.) Using a blank-slate approach, Omidyar habitually watches others (for example, clients, customers, or suppliers) and wonders, “What are they really trying to do here?” He then follows up with all kinds of who, what, when, where, and how questions to dig beneath the surface.

Similarly, Dr. William Hunter, product inventor and startup founder of Canadian-based Angiotech Pharmaceuticals, was intrigued by nontraditional ways that traditional drugs could be used. He ended up inventing the first surgical stent that was coated with a drug to reduce scar tissue (which causes up to a 20 percent failure rate in uncoated stents). His insight on coating stents came by changing the question traditional stent producers were asking, “How can we build a better stent?” to a more productive one, “What does the body do to these stents and why do they fail?” His relentless pursuit of the latter question ended up delivering a blockbuster product in the early 2000s.

In hot pursuit of what is, innovators inquire deeply for answers about what is happening right here and right now to gain understanding and empathy for others’ experience. IDEO (along with other successful design firms) employs diverse questions about the physical, intellectual, and emotional terrain to obtain a rich three-dimensional view of how end users actually operate. Intuit’s Scott Cook also does this by asking fundamental questions such as, “Where is the real problem?” “What’s the person trying to achieve?” “What’s most important?” and ultimately, “What’s the real pain point?” Innovators like Cook know their questions work when they reveal what is and build empathy for how it feels. Such empathic understanding produces the deep understanding behind better what-caused and what-if questions.

Tactic #2: Ask “what caused” questions

The next step in understanding the way things are is to ask causal questions to gain insights into why things are the way they are. To illustrate, Mike Collins, founder and former CEO of the Big Idea Group (BIG), a company that finds new product ideas through an inventor network and then launches them, shared an example of how inventors hunt down the real job to be done by understanding better what is really going on in their world. One inventor had pitched a fifteen-minute card game to Collins and his team for potential development and distribution by BIG. Collins felt that the game, as presented by the inventor, wouldn’t crack a tough family-gaming market. But instead of turning the inventor away, he paused and asked, “What caused you to develop this game?” The inventor quickly replied by answering a series of implicit who, what, when, where, and how questions: that he had three children (who) and little time after work (when) to spend with them at home (where). He wanted to have fun in the evening with his children (what), but there was no time for games like Monopoly or Risk. He was in search of a fifteen-minute game that would do the job of connecting him with his children for a quick and enjoyable few minutes at the end of the day.

From Collins’s initial what-caused question, a series of answers to implicit who, what, when, where questions emerged that resulted in a successful line of “12 Minute Games” sold through Target. These games did the job many families needed at the end of a busy day or long week, and the insight to that job came by asking questions that gave simple, but critical, insights into what was really going on in the inventor’s life.

Disrupt the Territory

After describing the territory well enough to thoroughly understand what is, innovators start their search for new, potentially disruptive solutions. They switch gears from descriptive questions to disruptive ones, like why, why not, and what if.

Tactic #3: Ask “why” and “why not” questions

Innovators persistently leverage why and why-not questions to acquire critical insights. Jeff Jones, founder of Campus Pipeline (a web platform that helps universities securely integrate campus communication and resources) and NxLight (an IT tool for simplifying the management of complex intercompany transactions by easily and securely exchanging documents), grasps this fact well, concluding: “Once you discover that asking why in a different way and not being content with what the answer is, it’s interesting what happens. You just have to go a little bit deeper asking questions one or two more times in a different way.” This is exactly what disruptive innovators do to discover new business ideas.

Consider the example of Edwin Land, cofounder of Polaroid.5 During a vacation with his family, Land took a picture of his three-year-old daughter. She could not immediately see the picture he had taken of her and wanted to know why. And, like most young children, probably asked why more than once. Her simple question pushed Land, an expert in photographic emulsions, to think deeply about the possibilities of “instant” photography. Why couldn’t she see the picture immediately? What would it take for instant photography to be a reality? Within a few hours, the scientist developed the basic insights that would eventually produce instant photographs, a product that would transform his company and disrupt an entire industry. In effect, his child’s naive question challenged industry assumptions and transformed Land’s technical knowledge into a revolutionary product—the Polaroid camera. This industry-changing camera delivered incredible impact between 1946 and 1986, ultimately selling over 150 million units and an even higher volume of expensive film packs for use in the cameras.

Are You Willing to Look Stupid?

So what stops you from asking questions? The two great inhibitors to questions are: (1) not wanting to look stupid, and (2) not being willing to be viewed as uncooperative or disagreeable. The first problem starts when we’re in elementary school. We don’t want to be seen as stupid by our friends or the teacher, and it is far safer to stay quiet. So we learn not to ask disruptive questions. Unfortunately, for most of us, this pattern follows us into adulthood. “I think a lot of people don’t ask questions because they don’t want to look stupid,” one innovator told us. “So everyone sits around playing along as if they know exactly what is going on. I see this happen a lot—people go along because they don’t want to be the one to question the emperor’s nakedness (as in the story ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’).”

The second inhibitor is a concern about looking uncooperative, or even disrespectful. Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, admitted that others sometimes see him as being disrespectful when he questions their ideas or point of view. How can you overcome these inhibitors? One innovator gave the following advice: “I often preface my questions by saying, ‘I like to be the guy that asks a lot of dumb questions about why things are the way they are.’” He says this helps him to detect whether it is safe to ask basic questions (that could seem dumb) or to question the way things are (without seeming uncooperative). The challenge for all of us is that there is a basic element of courage here, in being brave enough to be the one who says, “Wait, I don’t get it. Why are we doing it like this?”

Actually, the more powerful question behind our initial question, “Are you willing to look stupid?” really is, “Do you have sufficient self-esteem to be humble when you ask questions?” Over the years, we have found that great questioners have a high level of self-esteem and are humble enough to learn from anyone, even people who supposedly know less than they do. If this happens, they have learned to live the sage advice of Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner (early advocates of inquiry-based living and learning), where “once you have learned to ask questions—relevant and appropriate and substantial questions—you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you need to know.”a

a. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (New York: Dell, 1969), 23.

Similarly, David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue and Azul airlines, says that one of his strengths “is an ability to look at a process or a practice that has been in place for a long time and ask myself, ‘Why don’t they do it this other way?’ And sometimes I find myself thinking the answer is so obvious that I wonder, ‘Why has no one else ever thought of this before?’” For example, Neeleman’s first startup was a charter airline called Morris Air. At the time, airline tickets were treated like money; if you lost your ticket, it was like losing cash. This created problems for travelers as they dealt with the challenges of lost tickets and for airlines as they tried to send tickets securely to travelers. One day, an employee was complaining about a ticket problem, prompting Neeleman to ask, “Why do we treat tickets like cash? Is there a better way?” This question sparked an idea, “Why not give customers a code when they buy a ticket that they could give us at the airport with their identification?” This idea led to the creation of eTickets, an idea that eventually spread throughout the industry after Southwest Airlines purchased Morris Air.

In his most recent venture, Azul, Neeleman asked his senior team, “Why aren’t more Brazilians taking advantage of Azul’s low fares?” Azul’s flights were cheaper than those of the competition, but his question surfaced the real challenge—getting price-sensitive customers to the airport. Then Neeleman asked, “How much does a cab cost for our typical customer to get to the airport?” The answer was “too much,” potentially 40 percent to 50 percent of the airline-ticket cost. So Neeleman searched for lower-cost bus or train alternatives, but they were either nonexistent or too infrequent. This prompted him to then ask, “Why not start our own free bus service to get customers to the airports?” (to take advantage of Azul’s inexpensive fares). Today, passengers book (mostly online) more than three thousand bus rides per day to the airport with Azul, the fastest-growing airline in Brazil, which flew more than 21 million passengers in 2018.

In Asia, Taiichi Ohno, a former engineer at Toyota who is known as the chief architect of the Toyota Production System, put a five-whys questioning process—a technique for asking “what caused” questions—at the core of his innovative production system. The five-whys process 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. Many of the world’s most innovative companies have adopted variations of the five-whys process to push employees to ask why as they search for a better understanding of what is and new responses to what might be.

Tactic #4: Ask “what if” questions

Meg Whitman, formerly of eBay, worked directly with a number of innovative entrepreneurs and founders, including Omidyar (eBay), Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis (Skype and Kazaa), and Peter Thiel (PayPal) and Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla). When asked how these folks differ from typical executives, Whitman replied, “My experience is that they get a kick out of screwing up the status quo. They can’t bear it. So they spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about how to change the world. And as they think and brainstorm, they like to ask, ‘If we did this, what would happen?’”

Omidyar is a perfect example. As a systems analyst, he designs end-user interfaces from the ground up with no preconceived way of doing things. To do this, Omidyar probes deeply by asking a series of questions, such as, “What would be the cleanest way to solve it?” He sees himself as “the devil’s advocate in the room saying things like, ‘What if it really didn’t work this way? Or what if we really did do the opposite of this? What would happen then?’”

In sharp contrast to disruptive innovators, delivery-driven executives in our research were far less likely to ask what-if questions that challenged their company’s strategy or business model. Data from our 360-degree survey assessments of executives around the world revealed that most managers do not regularly question the status quo (though they often think they do). They prefer routine to rocking the boat and adhere to the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But innovators actively look for things that are “broke” and activate a pattern of what-if questioning to surface new angles of inquiry. One technique that innovators use when imagining the future is to ask what-if questions that either impose constraints or eliminate constraints.

Ask “what if” questions to impose constraints. Most of us constrain our thinking only when forced to deal with real-world limitations, such as shrinking budgets or technology restrictions, but innovative thinkers do the opposite. Marissa Mayer, former Google vice president of search products and user experience, once said: “Creativity loves constraint. When people think of it in terms of artistic work—unbridled, unguided effort that leads to beautiful effect. If you look deeper, however, you’ll find that some of the most inspiring art forms—haikus, sonatas, religious paintings—are fraught with constraints. They are beautiful because creativity triumphed over the rules . . . Creativity, in fact, thrives best when constrained.”6

Questions that artificially impose constraints can trigger unexpected insight by forcing people to think around the constraint. To initiate a creative discussion about growth opportunities at one company in our study, an executive asked this question: “If we were legally prohibited from selling our current products to our current customers, how would we make money next year?” This constraining question led to an insightful exploration of ways the company could find and serve new customers.

Variations of the same question can provoke surprising ideas. For example, you and your team might ask:

If the disposable income of our current customers (or our budget) dropped by 50 percent, how would our product or service have to change?

If air transportation was no longer possible, how would we change the way we do business?

Asking questions that place constraints on solutions forces out-of-the-box thinking because it ignites new associations. This is precisely what Apple did to come up with the iPod (“What if we created an MP3 player that could fit in a shirt pocket but hold five hundred to a thousand songs?”) and highly successful experience-centered retail stores (“What if we used a regular-sized retail store to sell a very small number of Apple-only products?”).

Likewise, Hindustan Unilever (Unilever’s business in India) wondered how it could reach millions of potential consumers in small Indian villages where severe constraints existed: no retail distribution network, no advertising coverage, and poor roads and transport. Collectively these constraints challenged its existing business model and produced a fundamental question: “How might we sell products in small villages without any access to traditional distribution networks, advertising, or infrastructure?” The answer ultimately surfaced from direct-selling business models (from companies like Avon). In close partnership with nongovernmental organizations, banks, and the government, Hindustan Unilever recruited women in self-help groups across rural India to become direct-to-consumer sales distributors for its soaps and shampoos. The company also provided substantial training for them to succeed as microentrepreneurs. (By 2009, the innovative solution in a highly constrained country context produced over forty-five thousand women entrepreneurs selling Hindustan Unilever products to three million consumers in a hundred thousand villages.7)

Ask “what if” questions to eliminate constraints. Great questions also eliminate the constraints that we can unnecessarily impose on our thinking due to a focus on resource allocations, decisions, or technology limitations. To counter this tendency, one innovative CEO finds these questions key to eliminating unwanted sunk-cost constraints: “What if you had not already hired this person, installed this equipment, implemented this process, bought this business, or pursued this strategy? Would you do it today?” Jack Welch often posed the same kinds of questions during his two-decade tenure as GE’s CEO. Questions like these quickly and effectively toss sunk costs (financial and nonfinancial) right out the window.

Questioning Dilemmas for Senior Leaders

When it comes to status quo–challenging questions, leaders (particularly CEOs) face two key dilemmas.a The first is that top executives are generally rewarded for generating better strategies or new business models, but they are also punished if they publicly question their firm’s own strategy or existing business model. CEOs are expected to provide answers, not questions, to key external and internal stakeholders. One CEO told us, “If I openly question our strategy or key initiatives, this could create a crisis of confidence within the company. People don’t like that kind of uncertainty.” Senior executives know, as researchers David Krantz and Penelope Bacon do, that “to question an act, belief, or experience runs the risk of disrupting the activity.”b When this happens, financial markets worldwide are generally unforgiving and punish such disruptions, at least in the short run.

The second dilemma for leaders is that it’s difficult for people in the organization to ask the top boss questions that challenge the status quo. After all, the CEO may have reached his position by creating the status quo. So while CEOs may be in the best position to ask and respond to questions, they actually face major constraints in asking and receiving questions that challenge the status quo. As a result, it is no small feat for a CEO to create a culture that fosters the kind of questioning that produces innovative outcomes, particularly new businesses and business models.

Many innovative founders and CEOs address the first dilemma by cultivating an informal network of people whom they can question, and who will question them. For example, an innovative CEO at a major multinational firm told us that he has formed an informal, unofficial group of confidantes. “It’s a fairly senior, fairly seasoned set of people who are comfortable throwing out ideas and then forgetting about them if these hunches or speculation aren’t right,” he said. “I can ask any question of these folks and they’ll give me a straight answer.”

Tackling the second dilemma is a little trickier, as the challenge can be culturally sensitive. In some country—and company—cultures, you simply don’t question the boss. For example, cross-cultural research suggests that eight in ten Japanese would agree with the following statement about the role of leaders: “It is important for a manager to have at hand the precise answers to most of the questions his or her subordinates may raise about their work.”c The result is that Japanese leaders are expected to deliver answers to their people, not questions, particularly not status quo–challenging ones. But a company or country culture that fails to encourage questioning sounds the death knell for disruptive innovation. Regardless of the cultural context, CEOs hoping to generate innovative ideas must make clear that leadership requires asking questions that challenge the way things are, even if such practices were established by the CEO on the way to the top!

a. Hal Gregersen, “Bursting the CEO Bubble,” Harvard Business Review (March–April 2017): 76; Hal Gregersen, Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life (New York: HarperBusiness, 2018).

b. David L. Krantz and Penelope Bacon, “On Being a Naïve Questioner,” Human Development 20, no. 3 (1977): 141.

c. Nancy J. Adler, Nigel Campbell, and André Laurent, “In Search of Appropriate Methodology: From Outside the People’s Republic of China Looking In,” Journal of International Business Studies 20, no. 1 (1989): 61.

Another approach to relaxing constraints surfaces in this question: “What if X technology were available to every consumer? How would it change consumer behavior?” After returning to Apple in the mid-1990s, Steve Jobs relaxed constraints by asking, “What would you do if money were no object?” prompting the creation of new products or services.8 This kind of question assumes that the pursuit of excellence at Apple occurs independent of outside constraints, including the cost of providing exactly what customers might want. Later, as a board member at Disney, Jobs pushed the same message further, admonishing people to “dream bigger” as they redesigned Disney retail stores to include one sales area labeled, “WWTD: What Would Tinker Bell Do?”9

Questioning as a Potential Turbocharger

Questions are a critical catalyst to creative insights. Yet, questions alone do not produce innovation. They are necessary, but insufficient. In the absence of practicing active observation, networking, or experimentation, theoretical innovators become what sportswriters in the United States might refer to as armchair quarterbacks. They ask clever questions from the sidelines and may naively believe that one or two magical questions will surface disruptive ideas, but they rarely, if ever, play in the real-life game of innovation.

We found that innovators were more likely to successfully launch innovative products, services, or businesses when they combined an ongoing instinct to formulate and ask the right questions with other innovator’s-DNA skills. In other words, leaders who ask questions as they observe discover more than those who don’t. Leaders who ask questions as they network for new ideas discover more than those who don’t. Leaders who ask questions as they experiment discover more than those who don’t. Ultimately, questioning combined with the other discovery behaviors can truly turbocharge your innovation results.

Changing our questions can change the world. The key is constantly creating better questions to see that world through new eyes. When this happens, we will find ourselves living the profound observation that Jonas Salk (discoverer of the first polio vaccine) made, that “You don’t invent the answer. You reveal the answer” by “asking the right question because the answer pre-exists.”10

We hope our framework for surfacing the right questions can help you along your innovation journey. Start by probing what is and then pursuing what if, particularly what-if questions that impose or eliminate constraints. But remember the framework is not the end, but the means. It is the first step to getting new ideas that might succeed, not a surefire prescription for successful ones. The next three chapters provide further insight into other concrete actions we can take to help improve the questions we ask and, in the end, reveal potentially disruptive solutions to difficult problems.

Tips for Developing Questioning Skills

Innovators not only ask provocative questions but constantly work at asking better ones. For example, Michael Dell says that if he had a favorite question to ask, everyone would anticipate it, which wouldn’t make it very good. “Instead, I like to ask people things that they don’t think that I’m going to ask them,” he told us. “I kind of delight in coming up with questions that nobody has the answer to quite yet.” To consistently craft better questions, here are a few of our favorite tips. (For an even deeper dive on how to build your questioning skills, we recommend reading Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life, by Hal Gregersen.)

Tip #1: Engage in QuestionStorming

A few years ago, we stumbled across an incredibly valuable questioning tool. We were teaching a graduate business-school class and found ourselves stuck on a particular problem, unable to find any further insight through a typical brainstorming process. One of us suggested taking a time-out from the process and focusing our collective energies on only asking questions about the problem, instead of trying to construct another set of solutions. Much to our surprise, the questions-only approach dug much deeper into the fundamental elements of the challenge and opened everyone’s eyes to a new understanding of the problem.

Since that first questions-only exercise, we have worked with individual executives and teams of executives over the years to develop a process we now call QuestionStorming.11 We all know about brainstorming, a process in which you get together as a team and brainstorm solutions to a problem. QuestionStorming is similar, but instead of focusing on solutions, you brainstorm questions about the problem.

Here’s how it works. First, as an individual or team, identify a personal, work-unit, or organizational problem or challenge to solve. Then write down at least fifty questions about that problem or challenge. (If you’re dealing with a work-unit or organizational problem, it is preferable to generate these questions with a team and write all of the questions on a white board for everyone to see.) We suggest a couple of extra rules when doing this as a team: Generate only one question at a time. Have one person write the questions down so that everyone can see and reflect on each question being asked. No one can ask a new question until the last one is completely written down. This helps the group build on prior questions to generate better queries about the challenge. Prod each other to ask a full range of what-is, what-caused, why- and why-not, and what-if questions during the exercise.

It’s important to follow some other rules. When capturing the questions, discipline yourself or your team to simply ask the question without offering a long preamble. Ruthlessly facilitate the focus on questioning until you have at least fifty questions (in other words, don’t tolerate answers; simply reinforce the importance of only asking questions about the problem or opportunity). After a possible stretch of initial silence (your team might struggle to formulate new questions about the issue), most teams engage in an even deeper inquiry about the real root causes of the problem or dimensions of an opportunity to see them in a new light. After listing the questions, prioritize and discuss the most important or intriguing ones in your search for better solutions. You may want to assign an individual or team to attempt to answer the most important questions (probably through observing, networking, or experimenting) before having the group brainstorm solutions.

We have found that individuals who frequently engage in personal QuestionStorming about challenges facing their work unit, organization, industry, customers, suppliers, and so on are more likely to be viewed as creative, innovative, or strategic thinkers. One executive in a large pharmaceutical company started writing down questions for fifteen to twenty minutes each morning before work. Three months later, his boss told him that he had become the best strategic thinker in his business unit. Six months later, he was promoted. Practice does make perfect, or at least better, when it comes to questioning. So if your “questioning muscles have atrophied,” as Ahmet Bozer (president of Coca-Cola International) recognized after a recent QuestionStorming workshop with his senior team, “it’s time to start exercising those muscles.”

Tip #2: Cultivate question thinking

When identifying problems or challenges, we often describe them as statements. In fact, we often ask groups of executives to identify their top-three challenges. As they wrestle with the task and identify these challenges, they typically frame them as statements. We then give the group an additional five to ten minutes to reformulate their top-three challenges into their top-three questions (about leading innovation effectively, for example). We have found that actively translating statements into questions not only helps sharpen problem statements, but also evokes more personal responsibility for the problems and moves participants to take more active next steps in the pursuit of answers.

Tip #3: Track your Q/A ratio

Disruptive innovators we interviewed consistently displayed a high Q/A ratio, where questions (Q) not only outnumbered answers (A) in a typical interaction, but good questions generated greater value than good answers. To check your current Q/A ratio, observe and assess your questioning and answering patterns in a variety of contexts. For example, in the last work meeting you attended or directed, what percent of your comments were questions? Keep a record of your Q/A ratio (percent of comments made that fall into each category) during meetings you attend in the coming week. When reviewing self-observations, you might ask what was your personal Q/A ratio? How many questions did you ask? Work to increase your Q/A ratio by reflecting on what questions were asked and then asking yourself, “What are the questions that aren’t obvious or are not being asked?”

Tip #4: Keep a question-centered notebook

To generate an even richer repository of questions, take time to capture your questions regularly. Richard Branson does this in notebooks “full of questions.” Review the questions periodically to see how many and what kinds of questions you’re consistently asking (or not asking). Table 3-1 can help you see what types of questions you might consider as you observe, network, and experiment to generate new ideas.


Disruptive innovator’s question checkup

As you keep your notebook, take a moment to reflect on the following:

What are your questioning patterns? What kinds of questions do you focus on?

What questions yield unexpected insights into why things are the way they are?

What questions surface fundamental assumptions and challenge the status quo?

What questions generate strong emotional responses (a great indicator of challenging the way things are)?

What questions guide you best into disruptive territory?

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Copyright 2019 Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen

All rights reserved

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior permission of the publisher. Requests for permission should be directed to permissions@hbsp.harvard.edu, or mailed to Permissions, Harvard Business School Publishing, 60 Harvard Way, Boston, Massachusetts 02163.

First eBook Edition: June 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63369-720-1

eISBN: 978-1-63369-721-8



Title Page




Part One

Disruptive Innovation Starts with You

1 The DNA of Disruptive Innovators

2 Discovery Skill #1


3 Discovery Skill #2


4 Discovery Skill #3


5 Discovery Skill #4


6 Discovery Skill #5


Part Two

The DNA of Disruptive Organizations and Teams

7 The DNA of the World’s Most Innovative Companies

8 Putting the Innovator’s DNA into Practice


9 Putting the Innovator’s DNA into Practice


10 Putting the Innovator’s DNA into Practice



Act Different, Think Different, Make a Difference

Appendix A: Sample of Innovators Interviewed

Appendix B: The Innovator’s DNA Research Methods

Appendix C: Developing Discovery Skills




About the Authors


Eight years. That’s how long it took to do the research behind The Innovator’s DNA and also the number of years since it was first published. Since that first edition rolled off the presses we have been gratified that so many readers have responded positively to the content. Ask anybody if they would like to be more creative, if they would like to generate more novel ideas, and you will undoubtedly get a resounding “yes.” The problem is that most people either think it is impossible because they believe creativity is a genetic trait or they simply don’t know where to start. The Innovator’s DNA shows you where to start. The key insight from our research is that creativity is not just a cognitive skill endowed by genetics. It is powerfully rooted in your behaviors—and in particular the extent to which you engage in questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting. Change your behaviors and you can change your creative capacity.

One thing that hasn’t changed in the past few years is the fact that the business environment is experiencing more uncertainty and volatility than ever. Roughly fifty million new businesses are started worldwide each year. That means more new technologies are being offered with different value propositions than ever before. Companies that joined the Fortune 500 in 1950 could expect to be on the list for more than fifty years. Companies that join the list today can expect to be on the list for roughly fifteen years. Think about it. In the last fifteen years we’ve seen the emergence of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Airbnb, Tesla, Amazon Web Services, Amazon Alexa, and many other companies that are transforming industries. Why does this matter to you? It means that innovation is more important to company, and individual, success than it has ever been. And innovation starts with a creative idea.

Since The Innovator’s DNA was first published we’ve had many people come to us and tell us their stories about how the ideas in this book have positively influenced their lives and careers. To illustrate, Eric, an executive MBA student, introduced himself at the beginning of one of our classes on creativity and innovation. Eric worked for a pharmaceutical company and mentioned that he hadn’t ever really seen himself as being creative. But he wanted to be more creative and was taking the class to see if there was anything he could learn that might actually help. We did a deep dive into The Innovator’s DNA and the years of research behind it—the research that helped the book win the 2011 Best Book on Innovation and Entrepreneurship from the Chartered Management Institute. Eric learned that business innovators get creative ideas by actively questioning the status quo, observing in new environments, networking for new ideas with people of diverse backgrounds, and testing the validity of one’s assumptions by experimenting with pilots and prototypes. He took on assignments to engage in each of these behaviors more frequently. One of the assignments was to write down fifteen to twenty questions each morning in a “QuestionStorming” exercise before starting work. These could be questions about specific issues in his department, or they could be broader questions about the company’s products, customers, sales and marketing techniques, HR practices, technologies, competitors, suppliers, or industry. Eric religiously wrote down the questions each morning before work, and three months later his boss pulled him aside and said, “Eric, something’s different. Over the last few weeks you have become a more strategic and valued thinker on our team. What has changed?” Eric explained his change in behaviors as a result of the class on creativity and innovation. Eric later told us, “Just writing down the questions each day was priming me to think about important issues for our department and company. I was able to raise those questions at appropriate times and also keep my eyes open for answers when I was observing and networking. It made a big difference in my ability to contribute important questions and ideas to my team. And my boss noticed a difference.” The class ended, and we didn’t expect to hear from Eric again. But three months later we received an email from Eric saying that he had been promoted to a position at corporate headquarters in the company’s strategic-planning function. He wanted to offer his thanks, because he felt the promotion was the direct result of what he had learned, and practiced, from The Innovator’s DNA.

Anecdotal stories like Eric’s are nice . . . and can be inspiring. But we wanted to know whether engaging in the discovery behaviors—of questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting—could be empirically shown to lead to faster promotions across a broad sample of business professionals. So we conducted a multiyear study with two researchers who were not affiliated with the original research: Markus Baer, a highly published associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis who researches creativity, and Zach Rodgers, a Stanford PhD who is a research fellow at HEC Paris. The goal of the study was to determine whether individuals who more frequently engaged in questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting (at time one) were more likely to realize faster promotions and higher compensation inside established organizations (at time two). We studied six hundred business professionals over six years and discovered that individuals in large organizations who frequently engage in these behaviors are more likely to be corporate entrepreneurs and get faster promotions to senior leadership positions where they make more money.1 The bottom line is that The Innovator’s DNA model works for not only generating new ideas but also generating career success.

What’s New in This Edition?

The goal of this updated edition of The Innovator’s DNA was to ensure that all of the content was cutting edge and fresh. Here are some of the things that are new in this edition.

We’ve included stories and quotations from new interviews with folks like Jeff Bezos (founder and CEO of Amazon), Elon Musk (founder and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX), Indra Nooyi (former CEO of PepsiCo), Mark Parker (CEO of Nike), Arne Sorenson (CEO of Marriott), Len Schleifer (founder and CEO of Regeneron), George Yancopoulos (founder and CSO of Regeneron), Frédéric Mazzella (founder and CEO of BlaBlaCar), and others.

We’ve added stories of how the original ideas were generated to launch Uber (Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick), General Electric’s Adventure Series MRI Scanners (Doug Dietz), BlaBlaCar (Frédéric Mazzella), Owlet (Kurt Workman), and others.

We’ve referenced new research, including our own, that provides even more empirical support for the Innovator’s DNA theories and framework.

We’ve provided a list of the top 20 world’s most innovative companies for 2018 in chapter 7. In the original book, we provided a list of most innovative companies that was so compelling that Forbes wanted it to be that magazine’s list and asked us to create a new list each year. Since 2011, we have created an annual “Forbes 100 Most Innovative Companies” ranking in partnership with Forbes. We use companies from these lists as our models of innovation for chapters 7 through 10.

We believe these changes will make the updated version of The Innovator’s DNA an even more interesting and compelling read.

Finally, we want to be clear about what this book is not about. This book is about getting new ideas (at the individual or company level), not about how to test and validate a novel business idea. People often come to us with a creative idea for a new product or business and ask if it is worth pursuing (or worth pitching to their boss). Should they create a platform, like AirBnB, that connects people who need storage space with those who have extra storage space? Should they create a property-management app for landlords? For those looking for a process to test and validate an idea before making an investment to commercialize it, we recommend The Innovator’s Method: Bringing the Lean Startup into Your Organization, by Nathan Furr and Jeff Dyer, which offers a four-step method that will help you nail a customer problem, nail the solution, and nail the business model to take it to market.

This book is also not about how you get the resources, both human and financial, to implement a novel idea. One of the difficult lessons that many innovators learn is that creativity is not enough. You need to be able to attract the necessary resources to commercialize a novel idea. Sometimes those resources must come from leaders inside an established company, and sometimes they must come from the startup financial community (e.g., VCs, angel investors). For those looking for how to be an effective leader of innovation by developing the capacity to acquire the resources needed to launch creative new initiatives, we recommend Innovation Capital: How to Compete—and Win—Like the World’s Most Innovative Leaders, by Jeff Dyer, Nathan Furr, and Curtis Lefrandt.

But the starting point for innovation isn’t testing and validating a creative idea or getting the resources to launch the creative idea. It is getting the idea itself. And that’s why The Innovator’s DNA should be the first step in your own personal innovation journey.


INNOVATION. It’s the lifeblood of our global economy and a strategic priority for virtually every CEO around the world. In fact, an IBM poll of fifteen hundred CEOs identified creativity as the number one “leadership competency” of the future.1 The power of innovative ideas to revolutionize industries and generate wealth is evident from history: Apple iPod outplays Sony Walkman, Starbucks’s beans and atmosphere drown traditional coffee shops, Tesla electric vehicles zoom past gas engine cars, eBay crushes classified ads, and Southwest Airlines flies under the radar of American and Delta. In every case, the creative ideas of innovative entrepreneurs produced powerful competitive advantages and tremendous wealth for the pioneering company. Of course, the retrospective $1 million question is, how did they do it? And perhaps the prospective $10 million question is, how could I do it?

The Innovator’s DNA tackles these fundamental questions—and more. The genesis of this book centered on the question that we posed years ago to “disruptive technologies” guru and coauthor Clayton Christensen: where do disruptive business models come from? Christensen’s bestselling books The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution conveyed important insight into the characteristics of disruptive technologies, business models, and companies. The Innovator’s DNA emerged from an eight-year collaborative study in which we sought a richer understanding of disruptive innovators—who they are and the innovative companies they create. Our project’s primary purpose was to uncover the origins of innovative—and often disruptive—business ideas. So we interviewed nearly a hundred inventors of revolutionary products and services, as well as founders and CEOs of game-changing companies built on innovative business ideas. These were people such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Tesla’s Elon Musk, Rent the Runway’s Jennifer Hyman, and Salesforce’s Marc Benioff. For a list of more of the innovators we interviewed whom we quote in this book, see appendix A. Virtually all of the innovators we quote—with the exception of Steve Jobs (Apple), Richard Branson (Virgin), and Howard Schultz (Starbucks), who have written autobiographies or have given numerous interviews about innovation—were interviewed by us.

We also studied CEOs who ignited innovation in existing companies, such as PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, Procter & Gamble’s A. G. Lafley, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Intuit’s Scott Cook and Brad Smith, and Bain & Company’s Orit Gadiesh. Some entrepreneurs’ companies that we studied were successful and well known; some were not (for example, BlaBla Car, Cow-Pie Clocks, Terra Nova BioSystems, Owlet). But all offered a surprising and unique value proposition relative to incumbents. For example, each offered new or different features, pricing, convenience, or customizability compared with their competition. Our goal was less to investigate the companies’ strategies than it was to dig into the thinking of the innovators themselves. We wanted to understand as much about these people as possible, including the moment (when and how) they came up with the creative ideas that launched new products or businesses. We asked them to tell us about the most valuable and novel business idea that they had generated during their business careers, and to tell us where those ideas came from. Their stories were provocative and insightful, and surprisingly similar.

As we reflected on the interviews, consistent patterns of action emerged. Innovative entrepreneurs and executives behaved similarly when discovering breakthrough ideas. Five primary discovery skills—skills that compose what we call the innovator’s DNA—surfaced from our conversations. We found that innovators “Think Different,” to use a classic Apple slogan. Their minds excel at linking together ideas that aren’t obviously related to produce original ideas (we call this cognitive skill “associational thinking” or “associating”). But to think different, innovators had to “act different.” All were questioners, frequently asking questions that punctured the status quo. Some observed the world with intensity beyond the ordinary. Others networked with the most diverse people on the face of the earth. Still others placed experimentation at the center of their innovative activity. When engaged in consistently, these actions—questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting—triggered associational thinking to deliver new businesses, products, services, and/or processes. Most of us think creativity is an entirely cognitive skill; it all happens in the brain. A critical insight from our research is that one’s ability to generate innovative i