Skills and Culture of Innovation

Skills and Culture of Innovation by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by mugur. Available at

Lisa is discouraged and just wants to jump ship. She had an idea for making a real difference in her company—something that would actually benefit the entire organization and something she had the authority and resources to drive. She got pretty excited when telling me about her idea. As we explored the potential impact on people’s work and even their personal lives, she get really excited. So we began the work of planning and implementation. After she got going on her project two realities became evident. First, she was not fully equipped to put it all in place. Second, others in the organization did not welcome her innovations.

My fellow author, Greg, once wrote about a time he was rock climbing in Argentina. He saw an opportunity for an adventure and got excited about the challenge. Part way into the climb, at a dangerous height, he was in predicament. As he describes it, he had “a ninety-degree drop immediately to my right, a stone wall to my left, and no sight above my head of where the climb might end…. Unable to see my feet, I gently reached back with my boot, trying to find a place to support my weight. The blood rushed to my face and a chill ran up my spine as the loose stones dislodged and tumbled to the valley below: I was stuck.”

Greg’s and Lisa’s situations were much alike, but there were also important differences. They both realized limitations in their skills and both felt alone and unsupported. Greg wanted to descend and end the climb. So did Lisa. Greg’s life was literally at stake. Fortunately, Lisa’s was not. Greg’s solution was to have faith that continuing the ascent would resolve the problem. (Thankfully, it did.) He didn’t have time to acquire new climbing skills nor was anyone there to support or guide him. For Lisa, I helped her acquire the skills of leading innovation and we helped the organization as a whole learn to be more open to change.

A recent book, The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen (Harvard, 2011), explores these two issues: It exposes what leaders of innovation actually do and what innovative organizations look like. These are captured in “five discovery skills” that all leaders of innovation must have, and three elements of the “DNA of innovative organizations.”

Five Discovery Skills

Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen, over several years, did research among several thousand leaders and were able to identify one cognitive skill and four behavioral skills of leaders of innovation. Together these are the “five discovery skills” of innovation leaders.

  1. Associational Thinking—This is the ability to make connections among problems, concepts, and ideas that do not seem to be related. If you know the genesis of the Post-It Note, you recognize that’s exactly what Art Fry did. This cognitive skill of innovation leaders is unleashed through the following four behavioral skills.
  2. Questioning—Described as a “passion for inquiry,” innovation leaders have an insatiable curiosity and relentlessly dig into issues. They ask “What would happen if we …?” and “Why does this happen?” Whatever the answer, more questions follow.
  3. Observing—Innovation leaders are observant and have the ability to see problems that others do not. Fred Smith famously saw the need for overnight package delivery and created FedEx.
  4. Networking—It is important to test your ideas with a wide variety of people and groups. Different perspectives will yield valuable insights and lead to helpful associations.
  5. Experimenting—Leaders of innovation are always trying new ideas. Perhaps Thomas Edison’s greatest asset was the tenacity and courage to try new things. The result was more than 1,000 patents in the U.S. and many more in other countries.

The DNA of Innovative Organizations

Those are the five discovery skills of innovation leaders. The four behavioral skills of questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting, lead to the cognitive skill of associational thinking. But innovation leaders rarely work alone. They also need an environment that supports and provides a vehicle for expression of innovation. Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen found that there are three elements in the DNA of innovative organizations.

  1. People—Jim Collins made the phrase “getting the right people on the bus” famous. The admonition applies here, too. First, innovative organizations must be led by innovators, people who practice the five discovery skills. Second, these innovation leaders must also expect others to be innovators; they must have followers practicing the five discovery skills.
  2. Processes—All organizations must have processes of various kinds, but innovative organizations know which processes can be flexible and which should be thrown out altogether. The problem is that getting good at something often leads to systemized (i.e. rigid) processes. Sometimes this is good. Other times, not so much. See my article, “Avoiding Core Rigidities.”
  3. Philosophies—The bottom line is that innovative organizations do not just have pockets of innovation and innovative people. If innovation truly is part of the organizational DNA, it is part of every “cell” of the organization. Another important philosophy is the acceptance of risk and failure. It must be OK for people to step out, take a risk, and mess up (or succeed!).</li

Everything described above rests on either skills or values. There are either skills to develop (which I believe any willing person can accomplish) or values to adopt (which takes more effort and time). The transformation of an inherently “un-innovative” organization is a difficult challenge. If you are an innovator and the organization you work in is not, you can, with time, influence change. Start small. Work within your sphere of influence and practice the five discovery skills. Where you have the ability to implement strategies, seek changes that support the DNA of innovation.

I would like to hear from anyone who works in a truly innovative organization. Do you see evidence of the five discovery skills and the three elements of DNA? Is anything missing from this model? What would you add?

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