Innovation is a learnt skill

I have recently started reading Clayten Christensen’s new book, Innovators DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, and the core thesis is extremely powerful – we can learn how to innovate. As you may have gathered from the title of the book there are in fact five skills that make people innovative. This runs counter to the generally held view that innovation is something some people are simply good at, whilst others are not.

The authors arrived at their thesis empirically, after interviewing dozens of “inventors of revolutionary products and services as well as founders and CEOs of game-changing companies build on innovative ideas." They also include what they learned from Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Howard Schultz (whom they did not interview) whose innovative thinking has transformed entire industries.

I think the study alone was pretty robust, but, as further evidence that innovation is a learnt skill the authors cite research by Reznikoff, Domino, Bridges and Honeymon which studied creative ability in 117 pairs of identical twins and found that only 30% of performance in creative tests could be explained by genetics. The corresponding figure in intelligence tests was 85%. The takeaway: geniuses are born, innovators are made.

The authors list the five skills of innovation as:

  • Associative thinking
  • Questioning
  • Observing
  • Networking
  • Experimenting

I nearly titled this post ‘Anyone can learn to innovate’, but I don’t think that is quite true, as to me it seems that one can learn to be questioning, be observant, network effectively and experiment well, but associative thinking is maybe more akin to intelligence, i.e. an ability you either have or you don’t. What Christensen and his co-authors do make clear, however, is that much of innovation can be learnt, and they show us the skills we should focus on if we want to become more innovative.

This work also shows the characteristics startups should look for in new hires if they want to remain innovative, and the behaviours that should be encouraged to maximise the innovative potential of existing staff.

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