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Book Review: The Innovator's DNA

The Innovator’s DNA by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen Book Review by Bob Schoultz All American Leadership

To Read More Book Reviews by Bob Schoultz, click here.

Why this book: My colleagues in All American Leadership selected it as a book for all of us to read and discuss. While I couldn’t make the discussion due to a conflict, I read the book and found that it had some very useful insights. Additionally, I read the book concurrent to my participation in Stanford’s Ignite Certificate program in Entrepreneurship and found it very complementary to the curriculum, though Ignite focused more on the commercialization of innovative ideas.

My impressions: The authors make the simple distinction between “Discoverers” – those who are more creative and innovative in their approach to problem solving and life – and “Deliverers” –those who are more comfortable in managing and injecting discipline into process. These are in fact two aspects of leadership – the openness to new and innovative approaches, and the need for disciplined adherence to process. This book points to the healthy tension between these two, and offers a short quiz to help readers determine if they are more inclined to one or the other. I suspect most readers already know their own predilection.

BUT the authors also make the point that with deliberate effort, one can become more innovative and creative in one’s leadership style, similarly to how, with deliberate effort, one can become a better leader. Obviously as in all endeavors – such as leadership – some are naturally more gifted than others, but all of us can learn to think and lead more creatively – and the book offers some suggestions as to how.

The book points out how many successful businesses are founded by innovative Discoverers. However, managing a business is not normally a strength of most Discoverers, so boards and investors will frequently call in a Deliverer – someone who excels in execution – to run the business once the Discoverer’s innovation is gaining momentum. And they point out that this step often leads to the end or the significant slowing down of innovation for that company. This point has been reinforced in Ignite.

Five Skills: The thesis of The Innovator’s DNA is built around the below five “skills,” which they associate with innovation – the first of which they classify as “cognitive,” the other four as “behavioral.”

  1. Association between unlike events, products, experiences. Discoverers see unlikely relationships between seemingly unrelated activities, fields and endeavors;

  2. Questioning of why things are the way they are, why not otherwise, and show a natural curiosity to understand not only what is, but what might be;

  3. Observation – As part of their effort to understand their environment, Discoverers are always watching, to understand what is happening, to help them identify possibilities and opportunities. They refer to innovators as being natural anthropologists – seeking to understand how people behave and why.

  4. Networking as a means to better understand different environments. They emphasize making contact with expertise and experience OUTSIDE of one’s normal field of endeavor – and using association and questioning skills to learn what insights might apply to one’s own world. They call this “Idea Networking,” and distinguish this idea networking, driven by curiosity and a desire to learn, from networking for career connections.

  5. Experimentation – Innovators are driven by a desire to understand and succeed by learning; they understand that failures are part of that process. Experimentation includes a strong bias for action – to try things out – even to launch products and ideas before they are fully ready – to see what happens, to see what works, and speed up the process of improvement.

Some other interesting takeaways:

Failure: The Innovator’s DNA talks a lot about accepting failure as an important part of being creative. In fact, over and over again, they note that “the most essential part of creativity is not being afraid to fail,” mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of, and innovative leaders and organizations don’t punish (well-intentioned) failure. IDEO –one of the most innovative companies in America – has the slogan, “Fail often to succeed sooner.” They quote Richard Branson: “The very idea of entrepreneurship…conjures up the frightening prospect of taking risks and failing.”

Scarcity is often a spur to creativity – figuring out how to do more with less. It recalls to me the idea of “field expedient” solutions to problems that military people are familiar with – finding creative ways to solve problems with whatever is at hand, without a surfeit of time and resources.

Questioning – This book echoes that great line from Peter Drucker “The most common source of mistakes in management decision-making is the emphasis on finding the right answers rather than the right questions.” They suggest an alternative to Brainstorming: Question-storming. When you have a problem, instead of everyone throwing up suggestions and ideas, everyone throws up questions – to help identify what is not known, as well as what might be done.

Deliverers – Taking innovation successfully into the market place requires having skilled deliverers, not just innovators. They list the skills of deliverers as: Analysis, Planning, Detailed Implementation, and Disciplined Execution. At the same time, they point out how an overemphasis on delivery and efficiency can kill innovation. Innovation is by its very nature “inefficient” (over the short term) because it has to make room for activities that are not directly tied to achieving immediate results. Returning to Peter Drucker – “People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.”

Developing Innovators – the book has a great final appendix on how to develop innovative mindsets in children. We could ALL learn from that.

As an inveterate associator, I think this book also applies well beyond business to how to live well and succeed in any endeavor – I believe that living well demands that we live creatively and create a unique life that fits who we are, as opposed to accepting what is sometimes referred to as an “off-the-shelf life.” It would be an interesting exercise to apply the principles in the Innovator’s DNA to the general art of Living Well.

A downside to the book: The Innovator’s DNA doesn’t mention how innovators and creatives are sometimes not particularly enjoyable people and are often very hard to live with – they are frequently so driven by their vision, their passion for creativity and innovation, that it is often at the expense of being otherwise good friends, partners, citizens, and otherwise fulfilled human beings. Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Richard Branson and of course, many of our most creative artists (e.g. Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Mozart among many others) are notorious for having struggled with their personal relationships and with finding happiness and fulfillment in life. That is often the burden of being a gifted creative. But the rest of us have benefitted greatly from their creativity – and their struggles. It’s a point that might have been addressed in The Innovator’s DNA.


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