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.