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Understanding the Innovator’s DNA

by henry on November 16, 2011

by Tapan Munroe, co-author of Closing America’s Job Gap

I want to make a dent in the universe” – Steve Jobs

Innovation is the key to business survival and success in the 21st century. The billion dollar“The phrase described what happened in 1960, for example, when an unknown company, Sony,Recently a book coauthored by Clay Christensen, Jeff Dyer, and Hal Gregersen entitled – The question is: can innovation be learned? Can business leaders find answers to important questionssuch as: How do I find innovators for my business? How can I become more innovative? Can wedistill and mimic the traits of leading “disruptive innovators” like Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison?

Maureen Glabman in a 2009 article in MediMedia gives a succinct example illustrating the

meaning of the term “disruptive innovation”:

began selling an affordable transistor television that eventually replaced RCA’s vacuum tube.

Soon it became apparent the transistor alone — the disruptive technology — did not tell the

whole story. To achieve success, the technology had to be coupled with a whiz-bang business

plan, giving birth to the encompassing term ‘disruptive innovations.’ Sony, with its coveted

transistor TV that many people could afford, and a plan to sell its TVs through Kmart (then a new

retail chain), put both the more expensive RCA vacuum tube TVs, as well as the many mom-andpop

appliance stores that refused to sell Sony sets, essentially out of business.”

Innovators DNA (August 2011) answers these important questions by delving into the minds

of great innovators. It is important to note that Clay Christensen of the Harvard Business School

revolutionized the study of innovation when he wrote the best seller The Innovators Dilemma

(1997) which popularized the phrase “disruptive innovation.”

The Innovators DNA takes an important step forward. It tries to delve into the minds of iconic

innovators such as Steve Jobs of Apple, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and Pierre Omidyar of eBay to

discover how they come up with disruptive innovations, how they differ from others, and what

businesses can learn from them.

The research underlying the book comprised a six-year study of innovative companies. The

authors placed twenty-five star innovators of the various companies under the microscope 



examining how they developed their path-breaking ideas on which their businesses were built1. Associating.The authors define it as “cross-pollinating ideas in their own heads and in others.” It occurs when the brain attempts to synthesize and make sense of2. Questioning.This is a passion for enquiry that challenges the status quo. Top innovators are3. Observing.This is a passion for observing and understanding the world around us including4. Networking.This involves testing ideas via a diverse network of people who have radically5. Experimenting.Innovators continuously fiddle with their products as well their business- 3 -The real challenge for businesses in America at this time is to enhance and sustain the culture ofTapan Munroe, PhD, may be reached“What Makes Silicon Valley Tick?” offers an account of the Valley’s

and developed.

A striking finding of the book is that, in most companies, the CEO does not feel that they are

responsible for originating key innovations. Instead they feel that they are responsible for the

stewardship of the innovation process. In contrast, in the most innovative companies (only fifteen

percent of the sample), the top executive does not delegate responsibility for innovation. They

themselves are the doers.

What are the key differences in the ways that disruptive innovators think versus typical


Disruptive innovators exhibit five key skills:

They connect wildly different ideas, objects, services, technologies and disciplines to dish up new

and unusual innovations.

novel inputs. New directions are discovered when connections are made across seemingly

unrelated questions. It is all about connecting the dots between different subjects, problems, and

ideas that others find unrelated. The authors theorize that innovators are 35 percent more likely to

come up with new ideas if they have lived in foreign countries. Creative associating is helped by

having depth in one area and breadth in many areas of expertise. This is the foremost cognitive

skill of disruptive innovators.

always asking why things are not done differently. This yields new insights, connections,

possibilities, and directions for their businesses.

customers, products, technologies, and businesses that ultimately gives rise to new ways of doing


varied perspectives. Many innovators are seen as misfits and loners. This is an erroneous

perception. Most top innovators are inveterate networkers. This is more than social networking;

it is about networking for revolutionary ideas that result in game-changing innovations. It is all

about idea mining from network of experts and not about “getting to know you” for another

contract or a business deal.

model. Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos is well known for that. They try out new ideas intellectually

and experimentally by visiting new places, trying new things, seeking new information.

The book adds a great deal to our understanding of the mind set of path-breaking innovators.

The thing that is missing from the book is a discussion on the innovators ability to create and

communicate a vision and help others to accept it. This is the sixth major skill and it is vital as

implementing major innovations involves a great deal of change and risk. The innovator must

convey a compelling vision and communicate it passionately so that others will get on board.

Steve Jobs of a master of that.

innovation internally. That takes a lot of doing; from hiring people with the skills from the outside

as well as teaching the five or six skills mentioned above internally. Establishing a culture of

innovation in America’s businesses will go a long way toward sustaining prosperity in America

in the 21st century.


Tapan’s book

economic vitality. It is available at

Read commentaries on his forthcoming book on jobs at

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