five skills for innovation

I’ve sat through a lot of business speakers’ presentations (and some I’ve slept through). But despite a rather low-key presentation style, the speaker I heard a couple weeks ago at a Utah Technology Council industry breakfast was just short of revolutionary. The subject was “The Innovators DNA” by Dr. Jeffrey H. Dyer, professor of strategy at the BYU Marriott School of Business.

Designers like to think of themselves as innovative. But Dyer says that innovation is not a genetic predisposition. Which is good, because these days, everyone wants to be innovative, from the CEO to the mailroom clerk (who suggested we do away with snail mail altogether).

“The Innovator’s DNA” was also published by the Harvard Business Review, written by Dyer and his cohorts at Harvard (Clay Christensen) and Insead (Hal Gregerson) Universities. The article and Dyer’s presentation both acknowledge that very little is known about what makes one person more creative than another. How do visionary entrepreneurs like Apple’s Steve Jobs and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos come up with innovative new ideas?

According to a six-year study conducted by Dyer and his associates, “habits of great innovative leaders define the foundation of their creative thinking.” Their research showed that five discovery skills distinguish the most innovative entrepreneurs and distinguish them from other executives.

Discovery Skill 1: Associating

This cognitive skill is the backbone of the creative process. Associating is triggered by the other four discovery skills. It is the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas from different fields. Steve Jobs made the same point in his Stanford commencement address, when he explained how an impromptu college class in calligraphy influenced the introduction of sophisticated typography and proportional letter spacing on the first Macintosh.

Discovery Skill 2: Questioning

Ask “Why?” and “Why not?” and “What if?” If you’re an innovator, you constantly ask questions that challenge common wisdom. According to Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay (and current California gubernatorial candidate), “They get a kick out of screwing up the status quo.” Good questions impose constraints and as Charles Eames said, “We should embrace constraints”.

Discovery Skill 3: Observing

A few years ago I was visiting my daughter in her cramped New York City apartment, where I witnessed the anthropological observations of two researchers. For my daughter, it was simply a way to earn $75 by answering a few questions while being videotaped. For the researchers, it was a chance to see small behavioral details. They were intrigued, for instance, by the way my daughter would switch between a home computer and a sewing machine on the only small tabletop in the apartment. The observing skill fits the Japanese concept of genchi genbutsu—“going to the spot and seeing for yourself” perfectly.

Discovery Skill 4: Experimenting

Designers call this prototyping, or simply making a mock-up. Entrepreneurs may call it launching a pilot. It’s all the same thing: experimenting. Designers are used to a process of iteration. You try it one way, you try it another, you see what works. Jeff Bezos, believes experimentation is so important that he aggressively promotes it. “I encourage our employees to go down blind alleys and experiment. We’ll get a lot more innovation.”

Discovery Skill 5: Networking

I’ve networked for years, but my primary objective was to find new business. According to Dyer’s research, we need to meet individuals with different kinds of ideas and perspectives to extend our own knowledge base and to find and test new ideas. We need to go to conferences like TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), started by the architect and graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman, and network with artists, entrepreneurs, academics, politicians, adventurers, scientists and thinkers. The TED Web site proclaims “Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.”

“It is important to remember that creativity and innovation are things that can be cultivated,” said Dyer. “Only one-third of the ability to think creatively comes from our genetics, the other two-thirds of the innovation skill set come through the learning and practice of these five discovery skills.” Dyer even suggested holding regular idea lunches, where you share innovative ideas with invited people from diverse backgrounds. I’m starting one up in Salt Lake City. Send me an email if you’re interested.

design thinking: developing innovation

Innovation has been recognized as survival strategy in today’s business climate. In the newest issue of Business Week magazine, an excerpt from a book by the CEO of the design firm IDEO, points out that the need to innovate is nothing new—but how to accomplish it, is new—design thinking. When I started my design business nearly 30 years ago we didn’t talk about design thinking. (In fact, we didn’t talk about much of anything outside of the arcane methods that were required to get something created and printed at the time.) Since then, the influence of design in the business world has grown dramatically.

The methodologies of the designer: brainstorming, mock-ups, user observations, storytelling and scenario building are all useful in building innovation. Tim Brown of IDEO says it is time for this type of thinking—design thinking—to migrate outward and upward into the highest levels of corporate leadership. Business leaders seeking innovation need to adopt the methods of the designer, just as designers are broadening their scope from just creating “things”, to the shaping of services, experiences and organizations.

Designers typically approach problem-solving somewhat differently. They’re more intuitive and emotional, and less logical and analytical. Instead of going A > B > C > D, designers may start at Q > D > K and end up at P. The logical thinker hires market researchers to describe how the world is; design thinking describes how the world could be.

David Butler, Coca-Cola’s vice president of global design, applies design thinking way beyond the design of Coke’s brand. “I love big, giant, enormous systems, no matter what they are,” he says. “In the past, design had been focused on straight forward problems: Come up with a drinking vessel, say. But now it was being asked so solve multipronged problems: How do we get clean drinking water? We’re moving from linear problems to wicked problems.”

Brown concludes by saying, “The design thinkers I have described here are not minimalist, esoteric members of an elite priesthood. They are creative innovators who can bridge the chasm between thinking and doing because they are passionately committed.”

seeing with fresh eyes

Last week I attended “Gain” in NYC, the business and design conference sponsored by the AIGA. Tom Kelley, general manager of IDEO, a global design consultancy, served masterfully as moderator of the event. Kelley introduced a speaker commenting on the idea of how we stop seeing things; how we often overlook the obvious. We go though life screening out things we see as distractions to our immediate objective.

The art of anthropology teaches that observation is the key to understanding and an important part of innovation and design. Simple observation may not be enough, however.

Marcel Proust, the celebrated French novelist said “the real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” Kelley names this idea by turning around the more familiar word and calling it “Vuja de”, meaning, “the sense of seeing something for the first time, even if you have actually witnessed it many times before.” When you go out to observe in anthropologist mode, you should aspire to Vuja de, the opposite of Deja vu.

As noted in the Fast Company magazine blog, “If you want to find untapped innovation opportunities, watch the world around you with “fresh eyes.” Go for a sense of vuja de, and then ask yourself why things are the way they are. Why do people wear a watch when their cell phone keeps perfect time? Why don’t movie theaters sell soundtracks as you exit the film? Why do we all have answering machines to record messages from telephone callers, but nothing to record a message from someone who stops by our home or office?”

knowing too much

Have you ever played the game where you are required to whistle a song while the rest of your team tries desperately to guess what tune is coming out of your mouth? You keep whistling the same thing, while they keep guessing the wrong thing, and the time quickly evaporates, and then it’s over. Nobody got it. You whistled so perfectly but they had no idea. Not only is it frustrating because now your team is down a point, but how did they not get that you were whistling the theme to Love Boat? It was so obvious– to you.

Now maybe you wouldn’t go as far as considering yourself an expert at whistling, but the idea played out in the game is a demonstration of the principle of how others don’t always see (or in this case hear) what seems perfectly clear to another–which can stagnate a process whether it be during a simple game or in more serious “innovation.” In the article, Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike, Janet Rae-Dupree, states, “As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off.” As we become more educated in a particular subject, we tend to only know how to do it one way and the innovation gets lost.

In the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, co-author Chip Heath (who wrote the book with his brother) says, “experts [are] cursed by their knowledge, and they can’t imagine what it’s like to be as ignorant as the rest of us. To innovate,” says Heath, “you have to bring together people with a variety of skills. If those people can’t communicate clearly with one another, innovation gets bogged down in the abstract language of specialization and expertise. You’ve got to find the common connections.” Cynthia Barton Rabe, author of Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine, suggests using outside help or what she terms zero-gravity thinkers to help keep creativity and innovation on track. When people have to slow down and go back to basics to bring an outsider up to speed, she says, “it forces them to look at their world differently and as a result, they come up with new solutions to old problems. Look for people with renaissance-thinker tendencies, who’ve done work in a related area but not in your specific field. Make it possible for someone who doesn’t report directly to that area to come in and say the emperor has no clothes.”

faster horse or model t?

At the AIGA Business and Design Conference I attended in October, Tom Kelley, general manager of IDEO, served as moderator. IDEO is a 450-person product design pioneer known for its groundbreaking work for Apple, Caterpillar, Kraft, and other manufacturing icons.


Tom Kelley told us the walls of the IDEO corporate conference room are adorned with an insightful remark by Henry Ford: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”


Focus group studies are notorious for this. If you ask people what you want, they almost always want more of the same, just with better features or a lower price. Real innovation produces ideas that no customers would come up with in the normal course of researching their wants. This is possible because designers try to conceive what people will want in the future, rather than what they want now.


As Marty Neumeier describes in his new book, Zag: The Number 1 Strategy of High Performance Brands, the best way to judge a new idea is to map customer feedback against a success pattern. When you draw a chart with two axes, one for “good” and one for “different,” you can see how you stack up against other options.


Just like Stephen Covey’s famous urgent-important matrix, the best place to be is in the upper-right quadrant — in this case, where good and different combine to create a successful idea. Unfortunately most companies feel more comfortable in the upper-left quadrant, good but not different, and end up with just a faster horse. Judge that new proposal against the good-different matrix. You can’t be a leader by following the leader.