The Innovator’s DNA

The Innovator’s DNA
Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal B. Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen
Harvard Business Review, December 2009

“How do I find innovative people for my organization?  And how can I become more innovative myself?”

These are questions that stump senior executives, who understand that the ability to innovate is the secret ingredient of business success.  Unfortunately, most of us know very little about what makes one person more creative than another.

Perhaps for this reason, we stand in awe of visionary entrepreneurs like Apple’s Steve Jobs and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.  How do these people come up with groundbreaking new ideas?

In searching for answers, the authors conducted a six-year study to uncover the origins of creative — and often disruptive — business strategies in particularly innovative companies.

Dyer is a professor of strategy at Brigham Young University.  Gregersen is a professor of leadership at Insead.  And Christensen is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

As they explain in “The Innovator’s DNA,” in the December 2009 Harvard Business Review, their goal was to put innovative entrepreneurs under the microscope, examining when and how they came up with the ideas on which their businesses were built.

They especially wanted to examine how innovators differ from other executives and entrepreneurs:  Someone who buys a McDonald’s franchise may be an entrepreneur, but building an Amazon requires different skills altogether.

The authors studied the habits of 25 innovative entrepreneurs and surveyed more than 3,000 executives and 500 individuals who had started innovative companies or invented new products.

Among the entrepreneurs studied were:

  • Jeff Bezos of
  • Scott Cook of Intuit
  • Michael Dell of Dell Computer
  • Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines
  • Mike Lazaridis of Research In Motion
  • David Neeleman of JetBlue
  • Pierre Omidyar of eBay
  • Niklas Zennström of Skype

The research led the authors to identify five “discovery skills” that distinguish the most creative executives:

  1. Associating
  2. Questioning
  3. Observing
  4. Experimenting
  5. Networking

The research revealed that innovative entrepreneurs (who are also CEO...