What are the characteristics or skills of a strong innovator? In The Innovator’s DNA, authors Dyer, Gregersen and Christensen set out five skills or attributes they claim are consistently demonstrated by successful innovators. The identification of these attributes is helpful but the book fails to fully address how firms should take advantage of the new insights, especially at an enterprise level.

Perhaps one of the most important questions facing corporations today, especially those seeking more innovation, is:  what characteristics or attributes signal innovation capability in an individual?  Further, is it possible to embed those key attributes in the corporate culture, so that a corporation mimics the characteristics and capabilities of a strong innovator?  Could we distill what makes Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison and other leading innovators so successful?

There’s another question unspoken but inherent in the first:  Is innovation capability an innate skill or can it be learned?  The “nature versus nurture” debate continues for innovation skill.  On one hand many will argue that Jobs and other innovators like him are genetic mutants, unusual and specifically gifted for innovation success.  Others, increasingly, will argue that the skills and characteristics of innovators can be identified, developed and learned.  If innovation skills and aptitudes can be acquired and learned, innovation can be accelerated in far more organizations.

In the Innovator’s DNA, authors Dyer, Gregersen and Christensen seek to uncover what makes good innovators tick, and separate the myth from the observable science.  The authors conclude that good innovators demonstrate five key skills which separate them from other people.  According to the book, the key skills that all good innovators demonstrate are:

  • Associating
  • Questioning
  • Observing
  • Networking
  • Experimenting

The authors helpfully provide definitions and examples of each skill.  For example, Associating is defined as “cross-pollinating ideas in their own heads and in others.  They connect wildly different ideas, objects, services, technologies and disciplines to dish up new and unusual innovations.”

The book describes each of the five skills in detail, defining what the authors have in mind when they label the skill, where and how the skill is demonstrated, how the skill “works” and how to develop the skill.

In my experience, the best innovation leaders I have worked with exhibited many of these characteristics.  The authors use many of the “usual suspects” as individuals who demonstrate some or all of the skills – Bezos at Amazon, Jobs at Apple, Lafley at P&G.  I think the book relies too heavily on well-known, powerful CEOs to make its case, and would have been more valuable if other successful but less powerful or less prominent innovators had been used as case studies.

Vision is missing

I think these skills are necessary for strong innovators but I submit that the authors left out or did not place enough emphasis on one skill I’ve found to be important for successful innovators, regardless of their rank in the organization.  That skill is the ability to create and communicate a vision, and help others understand and accept that vision.  Innovation requires so much change in the face of uncertainty and risk that an innovator, at any level in the company, must be able to create a very compelling vision and communicate that vision in such a way that compels others to risk a lot to get on board with that vision.

Lafley, Bezos and Jobs, in their roles as CEOs have the luxury of creating a vision and expecting it to be followed.  Innovators in the ranks, however, must have the ability to define a vision and communicate it effectively and persuade others to buy into that vision.  They cannot expect people to simply follow their visions and dictates.

Culture, Process and People

The second half of the book examines how to introduce the Innovator’s DNA into corporate organizations in three specific areas:  people, processes and philosophies.   This section of the book, while interesting, doesn’t do a great job reinforcing the key research points and covers a lot of the same ground that other books on innovation culture have explored previously.

The authors place a significant, perhaps inordinate emphasis on innovative leaders.  Whether a leader is innovative or not, that leader will ultimately move on – to other opportunities or to retirement. The key question is:  can a firm acquire the skills and attributes of an innovative leader?  Can the culture, perspectives and processes adopt and reinforce these skills?  For long-lived innovation, the answer is clearly “yes”, but strangely the authors don’t seem to focus on firms that have long innovation cultures, such as 3M.

Clearly 3M has sustained innovation across a number of different leadership styles, and demonstrates to some extent the power of innovative culture over the power of individual leadership.  Why does 3M sustain an innovation culture regardless of leadership, while Apple floundered until Jobs rejoined?

I suppose this last issue raises my one concern with the book.  While the authors have done an excellent job defining many of the skills that innovators must acquire and demonstrate, in the end they place too much emphasis on the individual and not enough on the corporation – the people, the processes and culture, the attitudes and the perspectives that govern much of what gets done.  An individual adopting and improving the skills that the authors define will become a better innovator, but may not have any impact on his or her organization unless he or she is a senior executive.  These skills require change in the way businesses work, and any new capabilities or skills that could detract from efficiency will be considered risky at best.  Innovators don’t work in isolation, but coordinate their work with other individuals and teams who may not have achieved these skills and capabilities.

Finding, Building and Reinforcing key skills

What’s interesting is that after so much emphasis on the importance of these critical innovation skills, the book is silent on the appropriate mix of people with these skills in any business.  Should everyone recruited to a company have these skills?  Should every person in the company be expected to receive training to demonstrate these skills?  Is there an appropriate “mix” of innovators and people who ensure the regular, day to day business runs efficiently?  While “everyone” in a business should participate in innovation, is it logical to suggest that everyone demonstrate a high level of attainment in all five skills?

Given the nature and importance of these skills, why doesn’t the book address itself to human resources and talent management, where many of these activities take place?

Finally, if these five skills are so important, and assessing individuals to discover their proclivities and skills are so vital, where’s the assessment tool?  The book does not describe the assessment instrument that was used to investigate executives in the first chapter.   After research on the web I found an assessment tool promoted by Dyer and Gregersen that costs $70 per person.   It’s strange that the book and the assessment aren’t more tightly linked.

Given the nature and importance of these skills, why doesn’t the book address itself to human resources and talent management, where many of these activities take place?  If these are the vital skills, then corporations should be assessing their executives, key employees and new hires to ascertain their achievement based on these skills, yet the book doesn’t address how to recruit people or assess existing employees or indicate how training may improve these skills, especially on an enterprise basis.


It’s clear that most industries and most businesses need more innovation.  Changing corporate cultures to embrace innovation is a slow and unwieldy process, so identifying the skills inherent in strong innovators is the right place to start.  Building those skills internally and recruiting new employees who demonstrate those skills will deepen the bench strength, and over time begin to shift the culture of the organization.  In The Innovator’s DNA Dyer, Gregersen and Christensen have detailed the skills we need on the team.  Now businesses must develop those skills at all levels of the organization in order to innovate in a sustained fashion.

By Jeffrey Phillips

About the author:

Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project.

Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” a book that encompasses much of the OVO Innovation methodology, and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities. In 2010 he chaired the Innovate North Carolina conference and was a keynote speaker at Queen’s University, University of the Pacific, UNC and several other colleges and conferences. Jeffrey has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin and an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Virginia.