Replicate innovators’ disruptive DNA

“SO what makes innovators different from the rest of us? Most of us believe this question has been answered. It’s a genetic endowment. Some people are right brained, which allows them to be more intuitive and divergent thinkers. Either you have it or you don’t. But does research really support this idea?

Our research confirms others’ work that creativity skills are not simply genetic traits endowed at birth, but that they can be developed. In fact, the most comprehensive study confirming this was done by a group of researchers, Merton Reznikoff, George Domino, Carolyn Bridges, and Merton Honeymon, who studied creative abilities in 117 pairs of identical and fraternal twins. Testing twins aged 15 to 22, they found that only about 30 per cent of the performance of identical twins on a battery of ten creativity tests could be attributed to genetics. In contrast, roughly 80 per cent to 85 per cent of the twins’ performance on general intelligence (IQ) tests could be attributed to genetics. So general intelligence (at least the way scientists measure it) is basically a genetic endowment, but creativity is not.

Nurture trumps nature as far as creativity goes. Six other creativity studies of identical twins confirm the Reznikoff et al. result: roughly 25 per cent to 40 per cent of what we do innovatively stems from genetics. That means that roughly two-thirds of our innovation skills still come through learning ­– from first understanding the skill, then practising it, and ultimately gaining confidence in our capacity to create.

This is one reason that individuals who grow up in societies that promote community versus individualism and hierarchy over merit – such as Japan, China, Korea, and many Arab nations – are less likely to creatively challenge the status quo and turn out innovations (or win Nobel prizes). To be sure, many innovators in our study seemed genetically gifted. But more importantly, they often described how they acquired innovation skills from role models who made it safe as well as exciting to discover new ways of doing things.

If innovators can be made and not just born, how then do they come up with great new ideas? Our research on roughly 500 innovators compared to roughly 5,000 executives led us to identify five discovery skills that distinguish innovators from typical executives.

First and foremost, innovators count on a cognitive skill that we call ‘associational thinking’ or simply ‘associating.’ Associating happens as the brain tries to synthesise and make sense of novel inputs. It helps innovators discover new directions by making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas. Innovative breakthroughs often happen at the intersection of diverse disciplines and fields. Author Frans Johanssen described this phenomenon as ‘the Medici effect,’ referring to the creative explosion in Florence when the Medici family brought together creators from a wide range of disciplines – sculptors, scientist, poets, philosophers, painters, and architects. As these individuals connected, they created new ideas at the intersection of their respective fields, thereby spawning the renaissance, one of the most innovative eras in history. Put simply, innovative thinkers connect fields, problems, or ideas that others find unrelated.”

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpt from The Innovator’s DNA. Copyright 2011 Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Christensen. All rights reserved.


Jeffrey Dyer is the Horace Beesley professor of strategy at the Marriott School, Brigham Young University. He is widely published in strategy and business journals and was the fourth most cited management scholar in 1996-2006.

Hal Gregersen is a professor of leadership at Insead. He teaches, consults, and coaches with executives and social entrepreneurs around the world, as they tackle significant innovation and social innovation challenges.

Legendary innovation guru Clayton M. Christensen is the Robert and Jane Cizik professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School and the architect of and the world’s foremost authority on disruptive innovation.

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