Developing Your Inner Innovator


Years ago, Arnold Glasow, an entrepreneur and humorist, concluded that “improvement begins with I.” We couldn’t agree more when it comes to becoming an innovative leader. Our book, The Innovator’s DNA, distills the results of our research on how the most innovative leaders at the most innovative companies in the world develop disruptive ideas. Our interviews with over 100 high profile innovators (like Jeff Bezos at Amazon) and surveys of more than 5,000 executives and entrepreneurs uncovered five powerful discovery skills.

Innovators question the status quo, observe like anthropologists, network for new ideas, and experiment by trying out new things, taking things apart, and testing out prototypes. Then they engage in associational thinking by connecting the unconnected to get innovative solutions. In short, innovators consistently act differently to think differently.

To start, we suggest three steps. 1) Assess your discovery skills strengths; 2) Identify a compelling innovation challenge that matters, and 3) Practice your discovery skills ruthlessly. When combined, these steps can help you — and your team — build the relevant innovation skills required to make a bigger, better impact at work and beyond.

Step 1: Assess Your Discovery Skills

To get a quick snapshot of how strong your discovery skills are today, take a moment to answer the following 10 questions. Remember to answer based on your actual behaviors, not what you would like to do. (You can also visit this web site to complete a more comprehensive 70-item online self-assessment or a 360-assessment to get a more refined, specific sense of your discovery skill strengths.)

Assessing Your Overall Discovery Skill Strength

1 = strongly disagree; 2 = disagree; 3 = neither agree nor disagree; 4 = agree; 5 = strongly agree

  1. Frequently, my ideas or perspectives diverge radically from others’ perspectives.
  2. I regularly ask questions that challenge the status quo.
  3. New ideas often come to me when I am directly observing how people interact
    with products and services.
  4. I often find solutions to problems by drawing on solutions or ideas developed in other industries, fields, or disciplines.
  5. I frequently experiment to create new ways of doing things.
  6. I regularly talk with a diverse set of people (e.g., from different business functions, organizations, industries, geographies, etc.) to find and refine new ideas.
  7. I attend conferences (on my areas of expertise as well as unrelated areas) to meet new people and understand what issues are facing them.
  8. I actively seek to identify emerging trends by reading books, articles, magazines, blogs and so on.
  9. I frequently ask “what if” questions that provoke exploration of new possibilities and frontiers.
  10. I regularly observe the activities of customers, suppliers or other organizations to get new ideas.

To score your survey, add your scores together from all 10 items. You score very high on discovery skills if your total score is 45 or above, high on discovery if your score is 40–45, moderate to high on discovery if your score is between 35 and 40, moderate to low if you score 29–34; you score low on discovery if your score is 28 or less.

The Innovator's DNA by Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen
The Innovator's DNA by Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen

Step 2: Identify a Compelling Innovation Challenge

After assessing your discovery skill strengths, the next step is to find a specific, current innovation challenge or opportunity so that you can practice your discovery skills. This challenge might range from creating a new product or service, reducing employee turnover, or coming up with new processes that reduce costs by 5 percent in your business unit. With your innovation challenge clearly in mind, develop a plan to practice some of the discovery skills as you search for creative solutions.

Step 3: Put Your Discovery Skills to Work

To conquer your innovation challenge, put your personal discovery skills to work. Practice your questioning skills first, since innovation often starts with a compelling question. For example, take five minutes for the next 25 days to write down as many questions as you can about your innovation challenge. After strengthening your capacity to question, identify your strongest skill among observing,networking, and experimenting and apply it to your innovation challenge. Finally, engage in frequent brainstorming sessions - alone and with your team - to practice associational thinking. By putting your discovery skills to work on a specific innovation project, persistent practice not only develops mastery, but delivers concrete results.

The disruptive innovators in our research did precisely this, either consciously or unconsciously. They practiced skills relentlessly, on almost anyone or anything they interacted with to solve problems they cared about. The mystery of innovation is far less mysterious when people practice the innovator’s DNA skills regularly so the skills become new habits. This takes time and self-discipline. So start with realistic expectations and actively allocate time to improving your discovery skills. Most of all, remember that as a leader your personal development efforts send a serious signal to your team and organization about how high innovation ranks in your priorities and how important it might become to theirs.

INSEAD leadership professor Hal Gregersen, Brigham Young University strategy professor Jeff Dyer, and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen are authors ofThe Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators.