Recent Reads: The Innovator’s DNA

The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovation. By Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen.  Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011. 296 pp.

Steve Jobs untimely death has reinvigorated a decade-old ad campaign featuring the Apple CEO’s voice. The ad’s tagline, “Think Different,” succinctly reflects what Jobs (and Apple) are all about, and its continued popularity reflects the mainstreaming of creativity and innovation in our society.

These skills or traits are now expected from all kinds of organizations, and a recent poll of corporate executives suggests that creativity and innovation will be among the most important leadership competencies for the future. The implications of these findings are particularly acute in the arts, where “creativity” and “innovation” have become so commonplace that they have lost their meaning.  Yet while some folks assume arts organizations are inherently innovative, the recent struggles faced by many performance ensembles and dance companies suggest otherwise. What does innovation look like in the arts, and how can we think differently in trying times such as these?

The Innovator's DNA

In their recent book, The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovation, Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen attempt to demystify innovation by helping readers understand where disruptive business models come from. Each of the authors comes from a major business school (Dyer from BYU, Gregersen from INSEAD-Paris, and Christensen from Harvard), and collectively they bring together real-world observations and research findings to expose the nuts and bolts behind the world’s most innovative CEOs and organizations. The book takes the form of an integrated case study, drawing upon nearly a decades-worth of interviews with leaders from some of the world’s most successful companies (including eBay, Amazon, Virgin, IDEO, and of course Apple) to describe how innovation works. It also serves as an invaluable guide for managers interested in cultivating innovative practices within their organizations.

Although the companies surveyed in the book comprise mostly large, publically-held corporations, many of the same findings can be applied to nonprofit arts institutions. The authors define innovation as an implicitly disruptive force embodied in five core “discovery” skills: association, questioning, observation, networking, and experimentation. These skills are implicitly behavioral and thus learnable, and they contrast with more mundane “delivery” skills such as analyzing, planning, implementing, and executing. While these delivery skills are necessary to bring one’s product to market, true innovation is cultivated through discovery. In nearly every one of their cases, the authors found that innovators were more likely than their non-innovative counterparts to connect disparate ideas, question the status quo, observe and react to their environments, network for new ideas (instead of resources), and experiment. In fact, leaders of the most innovative companies spend more than 50% of their time “discovering.” The message is clear: to innovate, you must explicitly value and cultivate these five skills across your organization. Such atypical thinking diverges from more traditional operating methods, but can result in higher productivity, increased employee satisfaction, and greater impact.

To quantify innovation, the authors construct a measure they call the “innovation premium,” which represents the proportion of a company’s market value (i.e. its stock price) that is not based on current products or services. In their words, “it is the premium the market gives these companies because investors expect them to come up with new products or markets [that are profitable].” (p. 6; to learn how this premium is calculated, see p. 265) Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen found that top-performing firms consistently earn over a 35% innovation premium (i.e. more than a third of their net value is rooted in inventions that don’t even exist! ). This kind of “pay it forward” approach might be altered to measure innovation in the arts. For example, one could imagine that the receipt of open-ended grant monies supporting organizational experimentation connotes a capacity for innovation, but financial measures alone cannot adequately reflect innovation in a nonprofit setting. Truly disruptive organizations design explicit processes that encourage (and in some cases mandate) employees to associate, question, observe, network, and experiment freely.  Innovation is a team sport, and it works best when everyone—from new employee to upper management—is pitching in.


Innovation: Where does it come from, what does it mean?

All in all, I whole-heartedly recommend this book. It’s an easy read, has lots of practical examples, and provides some fascinating insights into the minds of several extraordinary innovators. It also offers hard evidence that creativity is not innate, but skill-based and learnable. Readers interested in the book’s application to the arts will have to dig a bit deeper to find the appropriate path for innovation. While an artistic product or performance may itself be innovative, the organizations that produce and distribute that art often are not. Maybe our discovery skills are strong, but our delivery skills need more work. Or perhaps the business methods we use to support and sustain art-making are not as innovative or disruptive as they could be. Finite resources and overstretched staff make disruptive innovation especially challenging for arts organizations. Nevertheless, innovation signifies an essential investment for twenty-first century arts institutions, and myriad opportunities for and examples of innovative change within the arts exist. The lessons and tools laid out in this book may help your organization develop new processes that facilitate innovative best practices , so check it out!

Other Recommended Reads on Innovation: The Innovator’s Dilemma (Clayton Christensen),  A Whole New Mind (Daniel Pink), Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation  (Tim Brown), Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers (Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur)  


Michael Mauskapf is currently pursuing PhD's in Management and Organizations (Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University) and Musicology (University of Michigan), where his dissertation explores the intersections between organizational structure and artistic practice in the symphony orchestra. He is also co-founder and managing partner of Symphony Bros., LLC, a research and arts consultancy firm. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, and considers himself a passionate, if under-practiced, orchestral trumpeter.

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  • R. Overby

    An interesting book in general, but I would not consider buying it unless I knew that the authors explained how the “innovators” at corporations or other organizations were able to gain the trust, buy-in, and participation of staff and/or volunteers.

    Such a discussion would describe how to make innovation the “team sport” it should be – instead of the top-down, leader/CEO/boss’s latest “fad” for motivating people to be more productive. Nowadays, people don’t want to hear about higher productivity goals without also hearing how the methods(and organizational culture in which they take place) will be changed so they can do more with the same or less inputs of time and other resources. Otherwise, innovation will be seen as just another trendy new thing to add to one’s already mountainous workload.

    I am not a “management guru” – just someone with 25-plus years of watching these kinds of “latest new things come along”, and then fade away.

    I also would like to see a discussion of how such methods might be applied to nonprofit organizations that often rely primarily on unpaid volunteers. As president of a local historical society that has been doing everything with the same core group (and one-day helpers at specific events) for 12 years, such advice and case studies could be very useful. Maybe this has already been addressed somewhere on the Chronicle of Philanthropy webpage…

    • Michael Mauskapf

      Good points all. The authors do address your first point (getting team buy-in and ownership from stakeholders, including staff members), but they don’t tackle the specific challenges of innovation when applied in a nonprofit context. I’m not aware of a comprehensive source that deals with these challenges and/or successful case studies, but I suppose that’s what ArtsFwd is trying to do–i’d certainly be interested in any other sources you find!

  • First, it was an honor for our book to be reviewed ArtsFwd. I appreciated both comments above and your interest in how the ideas apply to non-profit contexts. For the past several years I have been working with non-profits, NGOs, and governmental organizations (many operating in the arts space) with the same ideas about innovation. We’ve now collected data from about 250 social entrepreneurs (about 15% in the arts space) and the ideas seem to translate well. The two big differences for non-profits is that the courage to innovate is higher in terms of commitment to change the world, but actually lower in terms of willingness to take risks. WIth limited financial support, it’s really hard for non-profits to take the smart risks that change the game and make the biggest impact. We’re hoping to get a follow up book out on the social innovator’s DNA in the next couple of years and would be delighted to get your input on what works, what doesn’t and why. All the best,

    • Michael Mauskapf

      Thanks so much for your note, and for the added insight on how these topics play out in a nonprofit/arts context! Is there hope of seeing work in that area published at some point, either by you and your co-authors or others?

      Happy holidays,

  • ian always

    What I would have like to see in the book is some evidence that cultivating these skills improve innovation. There is a correlation/causation ambiguity here that has not been addressed: maybe innovative people ask more questions – that doesn’t mean you can turn a non-innovator into an innovator by telling them to ask more questions.

    • Michael Mauskapf

      Ian – Thanks for the note. You raise an important point, although the authors do provide convincing evidence, i think, that innovative behavior can be learned and improved upon. Whether that be through the activation of some latent characteristics or simply increased facility with certain tasks and thought processes is unclear, but arguing explicit, one-to-one causality is difficult when you’re working with non-experimental (i.e. observational) data.

      • ian always

        I’d be grateful if you could cite the evidence that they present in favour of this idea as I don’t remember any in the book. For instance they claim that someone is 35% more likely to be inventive if they have lived in another country and they advise the reader to therefore spend time in another country to gain inspiration. Isn’t it quite likely that creative people are the kinds of people to go off an live in another country (ie its an *effect* of their creative personality not a cause of it).