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INSEAD research examines the ‘Innovator’s DNA’

INSEAD research examines the ‘Innovator’s DNA’

INSEAD research examines the ‘Innovator’s DNA’

Study uncovers what makes innovative companies and executives tick

Innovation is the ‘secret sauce’ of business success, but discovering innovative people and ideas remains elusive to many companies. In a study conducted over a six-year period, INSEAD, in partnership with Brigham Young University and Harvard Business School, identified the unique traits that are inherent to innovative entrepreneurs.

Hal Gregersen, professor of Leadership at INSEAD; Clayton Christensen, professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School; and Jeffrey Dyer, professor of Strategy at Brigham Young University, studied the habits of 25 innovative entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Mike Lazaridis of Research In Motion to examine exactly how they differ from other executives and entrepreneurs. The study also included self-assessment and 360° surveys of the innovation skills for more than 3,000 executives and 500 individuals who had started innovative companies or invented new products.

‘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. ‘However, senior executives at the most innovative companies don’t delegate creative ideas, but rather do it themselves. True innovators rely on their courage to innovate and a willingness to take risks.’

The authors of the study identified the following five ‘discovery skills’ which distinguish the most creative executives:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Observing – Discovery-driven executives produce uncommon business ideas by scrutinizing common phenomena, especially the behaviour of potential customers.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Gregersen added, ‘The skills that high-profile innovators like Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs use to generate disruptive business ideas are not as mysterious as they sometimes seem. By understanding, reinforcing, and modeling the innovator’s DNA, organisations can find ways to more successfully develop the creative ‘gene’ in everyone.’

The study currently appears in the December 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review and can be accessed online at

About the Authors

Hal B. Gregersen is a professor of leadership at INSEAD. His research, teaching, and consulting work focus on building better innovation skills in business, educational, and social enterprises.

Jeffrey H. Dyer is the Horace Beesley Professor of Strategy at the Marriott School, Brigham Young University. His research interests include strategic alliances and international joint ventures; inter-organizational learning and knowledge management; and inter-organizational trust.

Clayton M. Christensen is the Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. His research and teaching interests center on the management issues related to the development and commercialization of technological and business model innovation.

About INSEAD, The Business School for the World

As one of the world’s leading and largest graduate business schools, INSEAD brings together people, cultures and ideas to develop responsible leaders who transform business and society. Our research, teaching and partnerships reflect this global perspective and cultural diversity.

With locations in Europe (France), Asia (Singapore), the Middle East (Abu Dhabi), and now North America (San Francisco), INSEAD's business education and research spans four regions. Our 162 renowned Faculty members from 40 countries inspire more than 1,300 degree participants annually in our Master in Management,  MBAGlobal Executive MBA, Specialised Master’s degrees (Executive Master in Finance and Executive Master in Change) and PhD programmes. In addition, more than 10,000 executives participate in INSEAD Executive Education programmes each year.

INSEAD continues to conduct cutting-edge research and innovate across all our programmes. We provide business leaders with the knowledge and awareness to operate anywhere. Our core values drive academic excellence and serve the global community as The Business School for the World.

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