Friday, December 11, 2009

The Innovator's DNA (HBR article - continued)

In my last blog, I commented on a Harvard Business Review article entitled The Innovator’s DNA and promised I would look next at the ‘five discovery skills’ the authors suggest make up the innovator’s creative intelligence.

These five discover skills are:

  • Associating
  • Questioning
  • Observing
  • Experimenting
  • Networking

I think they are right that these are all useful skills when it comes to being creative. But some of their explanations of these skills are confused.

For example: the discover skill “Associating” is described as the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problem, or ideas from different fields. “To grasp how association works, it is important to understand how the brain operates.” The authors then describe how the brain stores experiences in such a way that memories can be pulled up that cause new associations when fresh inputs are presented to the brain. This is what we at Superinnovator call synthesis. (And describe in detail in Advantage: Business Competition in the New Normal ) It is a brain function. All brain functions take place in individual brains. There is no such thing as a collective brain. Synthesis is not well understood because we don’t really understand how the brain pulls up memories or makes connections between ideas. We do know that some people are very good at this. And we know how to identify these people.

After telling us that this is a brain function, the authors give the example of associating by talking about Frans Johansson’s Medici effect as bringing together people from a wide range of disciplines and by letting them connect, new ideas will blossom.

This description of the Medici effect accurately describes the fifth discovery skill of Networking. Which is getting ideas by exploring the different perspectives of a diverse set of individuals. It is not “associating” which is a mental ability taking place in the brain. Synthesis is a rich source of new knowledge and the principal source of innovative ideas in the modern world.

We prefer a crisper, more precise and more useful description of innovation skills in terms of the ability to create new knowledge. Synthesis is one of the ways we do this. We also do it through Discovery, stumbling upon something and perceiving its utility and value. The third way we create new knowledge is through Experimentation. Experimentation is trying different things to find a solution that works. The authors of the article give erroneous examples of experimentation such as Steve Jobs taking apart a Walkman, or Jeff Bezos taking apart his crib, or Starbucks’ Shultz visiting Italian coffee shops. First of all, these are not examples of creating knowledge, they are examples of gaining knowledge. Innovation happens when we create knowledge, not when we gain it.

Anyway, enough complaining. The article does end strongly. It rightly points out that you can become a great leader of innovation through practice, practice, practice. We teach that leading innovation organization is a different skill from being innovative, and a successful organization needs great innovation leadership, and skilled innovators.

They also rightly suggest that networking with diverse people will help you gain different perspectives which will help you think in new ways and gain new insights.

They also rightly point out that asking surprising questions stimulates new ideas. They suggest ‘why” and “why not” questions. While these are good questions as long as they don’t invite the devil’s advocate in us to emerge (which “why not” questions are prone to do). We prefer questions that ask “how”. These are questions such as: “how” can we better understand a problem?; “how” can we test a hypothesis?; “how” can we beat the competition? “How” questions are more profitable than “why” or “why not” because they focus on solutions and solutions are what innovators produce.

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