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everyday acts of innovation
February 2, 2010, 2:33 am
Filed under: Experience

Innovation is undoubtedly the ‘secret sauce’ of business success. The good news is, the ability to innovate is a learnable skill — at least according to three researchers from INSEAD, Brigham Young and Harvard in their new study conducted over a six-year period.

‘Our research showed that at most companies, top executives do not feel personally responsible for coming up with strategic innovations,’ said Hal Gregersen of INSEAD. ‘True innovators rely on their courage to innovate and a willingness to take risks.’

Most innovative leaders possess five key “discovery skills” that distinguish them from their less creative colleagues:

  1. Associating – The ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields, is central to the innovator’s DNA. The world’s most innovative companies prosper by capitalising on the divergent associations of their founders, executives, and employees.
  2. Questioning – Innovators constantly ask honest questions that challenge common wisdom or ‘question the unquestionable.’ While most managers focus on how to make existing processes – the status quo – work better, innovative entrepreneurs are more likely to challenge assumptions.
  3. Observing – Discovery-driven executives produce uncommon business ideas by scrutinizing common phenomena, especially the behaviour of potential customers.
  4. Experimenting – Using the world as their laboratory, innovative entrepreneurs actively try out new ideas by creating prototypes and launching pilots. Most engage in some form of active experimentation, whether it is intellectual exploitation, physical tinkering, or engagement in new surroundings.
  5. Networking – Innovative entrepreneurs devote time and energy to finding and testing ideas through a network of diverse individuals in order to develop radically different perspectives. Unlike most executives who network to access resources, innovators go out of their way to meet people with different kinds of ideas and perspectives to extend their own knowledge domains.

The five skills, Gregersen says, are ‘a habit, a practice, a way of life’ for innovators.

Although Gregersen and his co-authors use the DNA metaphor, innovative entrepreneurs are actually made or developed, rather than born. “We each have unique, fixed physical DNA,” says Gregersen, “but in terms of creativity, we each have a unique set of learnable skills that we rely on in order to get to the ideas that will give us some insight.” Research involving identical twins suggests that only about 20-25 per cent of our creativity ability is geneticically driven. “This means the other 75-80 per cent comes from the world we live in,”

Quotes and data compiled from here, here and here. The study appears in the December 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review and can be accessed online at


9 Comments so far
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I was lucky enough to do a three day course with Hal at INSEAD on leadership just a few months ago, where we read and debated a lot of his work in detail.

The study published in the HBR is expanded in Gregersen’s current book “It starts with one”. Which is a brilliant read. Some of the detail in his study assesses innovators/leaders that we know and love against the 5 criteria you list above in your post. It’s very interesting to relate the persona with the capabilities. Whats also inspiring is that, not all leaders achieve excellence in all of those behaviours … phew.

Stay tuned as Hal is releasing another book soon. Perhaps you can write a post about it when he does!


Comment by James Sowden

Can I just stand near you instead and hope that some of your awesomness rubs off?

Comment by katiechatfield

really nice article, pretty hard to read thow because of the small fonts 😉

Comment by michael

Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by katiechatfield: the 5 discovery habits you can develop now to feed your innovation skills

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Great post. While not necessarily a ‘discovery skill’, I’d suggest having a passion for the work is critical for innovative success.

Comment by Mike Hickinbotham

Me too Mike- passion wins just about everything. I do like the notions of taking passion into and everyday practice though…I loved this piece about ‘What Makes A Great Teacher” that outlines this too

Basically it’s about a relentless mind-set:

Great teachers, it concludes, constantly reevaluate what they are doing.

Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common:
• they avidly recruited students and their families into the process;
• they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning;
• they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome;
• and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls

Comment by katiechatfield

Exactly my approach to blogging!

Comment by Gavin Heaton

Thanks for the inspiring post, exciting indeed….curious if the quote that execs don’t feel personally responsible to drive innovation highlights more that don’t feel as individuals they are innovative, or that their specific role doesn’t necessitate it? Either way, guess the point is they are mistaken, just interesting from a management perspective. Anyway, love the idea of extending ourselves to collaborate with ‘radically’ different perspectives, seems more a life lesson then a business skill.

Comment by Meghan Stuyvenberg

There’s quite a a lot of detail in the links- but essentially it’s that most dont feel they *are* innovative- while they know that that their companies and their future success depends on it.
I liked the way that the research points to how you can address those feeling in senior staff by promtpting the above behaviours

Comment by katiechatfield

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