The DNA of Disruptive Innovators
Most of us believe that some people, like Jobs, are simply born with creative genes, while others are not. Innovators are supposedly right brained, meaning that they are genetically endowed with creative abilities. The rest of us are left brained—logical, linear thinkers, with little or no ability to think creatively.
If you believe this, we’re going to tell you that you are largely wrong. At least within the realm of business innovation, virtually everyone has some capacity for creativity and innovative thinking. Research confirms creativity skills are not simply genetic traits, endowed at birth, but that they can be developed.
Specifically, innovators engage the following five behavioral skills more frequently.
Skill #1: Associating
Creativity is just connecting things.” —Steve Jobs
Jobs once put it, “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.”
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.
To strengthen your capacity to think differently and weave together unexpected connections across ideas, consider the following short- and long-term exercises.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Skill #2: Questioning
Question the unquestionable.” —Ratan Tata
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 favorite tips.
Tip #1: Engage in QuestionStorming
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.
Tip #2: Cultivate question thinking
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 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.
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.”
Skill #3: Observing
Observation is the big game changer in our company.” —Scott Cook, founder, Intuit
Observation has the power to transform companies and industries. As Cook told us, “Basic observation is the big game changer in our company.” Effective observation requires putting yourself in new environments. It involves watching customers to see what products and services they hire to help them do their jobs. It involves looking for workarounds—partial or incomplete solutions—that customers use to do those jobs. And it involves looking for surprises or anomalies that might provide surprising insights.
Tip #1: Observe customers
Hone your observing skills by scheduling regular observation excursions to carefully watch how certain customers experience your product or service.
Observe real people in real-life situations. Try to grasp what they like and hate. Search for things that make life easier or more difficult for them.
Tip #2: Observe companies
Pick a company to observe and follow. Maybe it is a company you admire, such as Apple, Google, or Virgin. It could be a startup with an innovative business model or disruptive technology. Or it could be a particularly tough, innovative competitor. Treat the company as you would a business-school case. Find out everything you can about what the company does and how it does it.
Tip #3: Observe whatever strikes your fancy
Set aside ten minutes each day to simply observe something intensively. Take careful notes about your observations. Then try to figure out how what you are seeing might lead to a new strategy, product, service, or production process. When you are out and about watching the world, jot down your key observations and thoughts on a notepad, and review your notes later, after a little time has passed.
Tip #4: Observe with all your senses
As you observe customers, companies, or whatever, actively engage more than one sense (see, smell, hear, touch, taste). One structured way to do this is through Dialogue in the Dark (a practice developed by Andreas Heinecke) and Dialogue in Silence (a practice developed by Heinecke and his wife, Orna Cohen). In these tours by visually or hearing-impaired guides, guests experience darkened or silent environments (ranging from permanent exhibitions to restaurants located throughout the world) and enter a completely different world of either darkness or silence. A less structured approach to engaging your senses is to simply and intentionally become aware of your wider range of senses.
Skill #4: Networking
What a person thinks on his own, without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people, is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous.” —Albert Einstein
Networking is most likely to spark innovative ideas when you initiate conversations with folks in different social networks. This means talking to people from different business functions, companies, industries, countries, ethnic groups, socioeconomic groups, age groups (eighteen-year-olds and eighty-year-olds), political groups, and religions. Diversity of network breeds diversity of ideas. Attending idea conferences such as TED can be a way to jump-start the diversity of your network. Moreover, when facing a particular problem, ask yourself, “Who else has faced a problem like this before?” and try to talk to those folks.
Tip #1: Expand the diversity of your network
List the top-ten people you would typically talk with if you were trying to get or refine a new idea. Go ahead. Make the list right now. How many of those people have a background or perspective that is likely to be very different from yours?
Tip #2: Start a “mealtime networking” plan
Plan to have a meal with someone from a different background at least once each week.
Tip #3: Plan to attend at least two conferences in the next year
Select one conference that is on a topic related to your area of expertise and one conference on a topic that isn’t. Make an effort to meet new people and get to know what problems and issues they are facing; ask for their ideas and perspectives on problems and issues you are wrestling with.
Tip #4: Start a creative community
Identify a few founding members who you believe are open to discussing new ideas and who you think will stimulate your creative thinking. Decide on a creative place to meet where you can exchange ideas and develop new ones.
Tip #5: Invite an outsider
Bring in a smart person with a different background (someone from a different function, profession, company, industry, country, age, ethnic group, socioeconomic group) to have lunch with you and your team once each week.
Tip #6: Cross-train with experts
Find experts in different functions, industries, or geographic regions, and sit in on their training sessions and meetings to experience their work and world.
Skill #5: Experimenting
I haven’t failed . . . I’ve just found 10,000 ways that will not work.” —Thomas Edison
Innovators engage in three types of experimenting to generate data and spark new insights: trying out new experiences, taking things apart, and testing ideas by creating prototypes and pilots. Although questioning, observing, and networking are excellent for providing data about the past and present, experimenting is the best technique for generating data on what might work in the future.
To strengthen your experimenting skills, you will need to consciously approach your work and life with a hypothesis-testing mind-set.
Tip #1: Cross physical borders
Visit (or even better, take up occupancy in) a new country or some other new environment, such as a different functional area within your company or a new company in a different industry. Acquire a passport mind-set to break free of common routines.
Tip #2: Cross intellectual borders
Take out a new annual subscription to a newspaper, newsletter, or magazine from an entirely different context (or to help save trees, intentionally and regularly search the web for country, industry, or profession information about areas distant from your own).
Tip #3: Develop a new skill
To gain new perspectives, create a plan to develop some new skills or acquire new knowledge. Look for opportunities in your community to take classes in acting or photography, or get some basic training in mechanics, electronics, or home building. Try out new physical activities like yoga, gymnastics, snowboarding, scuba diving, or even sky diving (if you are brave enough).
Tip #4: Disassemble a product
Look through your house for something that no longer works, or go to a junkyard or flea market to buy a few things that you can easily take apart. (This is especially fun to do with your kids.) Search for something that you’ve always been interested in but have never taken the time to explore.
Tip #5: Build prototypes
Identify something that you would like to improve. What would it look like if you changed it? Build a prototype of your new, improved invention from random materials in your house or office, or go on a shopping spree to obtain odd things that might work well in the prototype.
Tip #6: Regularly pilot new ideas
Gordon Moore, the cofounder of Intel, once recalled that, “most of what I learned as an entrepreneur was by trial and error.” Engage in frequent pilot tests (small-scale experiments) to try out new ideas and to see what you learn from doing something differently than you’ve done before. You, too, can become an experimenter when you embrace learning through trial and error, but you must have the courage to fail and learn from your failures.
Tip #7: Go trend spotting
Actively seek to identify emerging trends by reading books, articles, magazines, web links, blogs, and other sources that specifically focus on identifying new trends.
Then think about how these trends might lead to an interesting experiment with regard to a new product or service. Figure out a way to creatively conduct that experiment.
Act Different, Think Different, Make a Difference
In the end, innovation is an investment—in yourself, in others, and, if you’re a senior manager or emerging entrepreneur, in your company. Whether you’re working at the top of an organization or as a technical specialist at the bottom, Meg Whitman, formerly of eBay, advises everyone “to have the courage to plant acorns before you need oak trees.” Innovation is all about planting acorns (ideas) with less than complete confidence that each will grow into something meaningful.
The alternative, however, is little or no growth when no acorns emerge as trees. By understanding and reinforcing the DNA of individual innovators within innovative teams and organizations, you can find ways to more successfully develop not just growth saplings but the real oak trees of future growth.
As you continue your innovation journey, let your life speak the final line from Apple’s Think Different campaign: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” So just do it. Do it now!