The innovator’s DNA

I read The innovator’s DNA: mastering the five skills of disruptive innovators by Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011) for two reasons: (1) because I am interested, as a company director, in the questions of what makes businesses innovative and how they can become more so; and (2) because I like to learn about innovation and creativity in business in order to explore possible parallels with creativity in writing.

The innovator’s DNA is designed to articulate with books such as Clayton Christensen’s The innovator’s dilemma and The innovator’s solution. It comprises two parts: the first deals with the development of innovativeness in individual business leaders; the second, shorter, part deals with innovativeness in teams and organisations.

The transition between the two is not entirely smooth: it feels like an awkward change of gears. It is the first part that I found more convincing: that is the part I will remember.

On the basis of their research on innovative leaders, the authors identify five key skills. They are:

  1. associational thinking
  2. questioning
  3. observing
  4. networking
  5. experimenting.

Part I of the book devotes provides an extended discussion of each of these in turn. The treatment is confident, crisp, and perceptive. I recommend the book for these chapters alone. I found myself taking extensive notes and am sure that I will come back to them.

The book includes three appendices, one of which outlines the authors’ research methodology. The main method used to research individuals’ innovativeness was in-depth interviews with the individuals themselves. This was supplemented by interviews with their colleagues. The foundation of the research, therefore, consists of perceptions – perceptions of self and of others.

This methodology certainly proved useful as a means of exploration. It has yielded all kinds of rich insights. Sometimes, however, the authors forget its limitations. They often offer assertions about what has made their selected individuals innovative, where strictly speaking the assertions concern what people perceive to be the case. To know whether these perceptions are accurate, some form of triangulation of results would be necessary.

Interviewees were drawn from large companies. As a micro-entrepreneur, I would be keen to discover how well the skills identified above apply in a micro-enterprise context. My intuition is that they are highly applicable.

Given that the implication throughout the book is that one can learn to become more innovative, it is odd that the authors have chosen a geneticist metaphor (‘DNA’). The authors seek to explain this (in Chapter 1): I didn’t really understand their answer. I suggest the real answer is that, strictly speaking, the book should be entitled Innovation’s DNA (though that would not, of course, chime so well with the titles of Christensen’s books, mentioned above).

I see I have been rather critical of the book. Please take that as a sign of serious engagement. I am glad I read it.

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One Response to “The innovator’s DNA”

  1. […] Warhol economy reminds me in some ways of another book reviewed on this blog, namely The innovator’s DNA: mastering the five skills of disruptive in… by Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011). Both books take an […]

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