MIT lecturer explains 5 key skills that separate innovators from imitators


Steve Jobs

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Steve Jobs.

What does is take to be as innovative as legends like Steve Jobs or Larry Page?


According to Hal Gregersen, the executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, "all of us were quite good at [innovation] when we were 4 years old." The problem is, without cultivation, these skills are often lost by adulthood.

Four years ago, Gregersen, along with business professors Jeff Dyer and Clayton Christensen, set out to help people rediscover those abilities when they published "The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators."

While researching the book, the authors interviewed nearly 100 inventors of groundbreaking products and services, founders and CEOs of companies built on innovative business ideas, and CEOs who spearheaded innovation in existing companies. Their findings suggest that innovation is composed of five main components.

Today, Gregersen teaches an MIT Sloan Executive Education course called The Innovator's DNA: Mastering Five Skills for Disruptive Innovation, based on the principles covered in the book.


We recently spoke with Gregersen about the five key skills that distinguish innovative entrepreneurs - and how you can get started building them.

1. Associating

Of the five skills, Gregersen says just two are common to all innovators: associating and questioning. Associating refers to the potential to connect seemingly distinct questions, problems, or ideas from different areas.

For example, consider Larry Page, cofounder of Google. Based on his experience as a Ph.D. student at Stanford, Page knew that academic journals ranked scholars according to the number of citations they received. Once he made a connection between those academic journals and Web search, he was able to conceptualize Google, which ranks search results according to the number of other pages that link to them.

So how can you spark more associative, Page-like thinking? Try practicing "forced associating" by opening a random Wikipedia article and thinking about how the information you see relates to a problem your company is having.

2. Questioning

The innovators interviewed didn't just ask questions - they "asked challenging questions that provoked the status quo," Gregersen says.


One important - if counterintuitive - goal of asking provocative questions is to impose constraints on your thinking. One innovative executive interviewed said he asked his team: "What if we were legally prohibited from selling to our current customers? How would we make money next year?" These kinds of artificial constraints can spark unexpected ideas for your business.

3. Observing

Gregersen says it's not necessary for innovative entrepreneurs to possess all of the last three skills, which focus on data collection. (Often, they're working with other members of a team who do have these abilities.)

Observing involves examining people's everyday behavior, sometimes in new places. In doing so, you can see whether people in other environments have figured out a solution to a problem that your organization is facing.

Starbucks founder Howard Schultz used this skill while visiting Italian espresso bars. When a customer nearby ordered a cafe latte, Schultz ordered the same beverage, even though he had no idea what it was. Immediately, he knew he had to bring the drink back to the US.

howard schultz

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Howard Schultz.


4. Experimenting

In the book, the researchers explain that sometimes the only way to answer "What if?" questions is to experiment.

The idea is to engage in different learning experiences that don't seem directly connected to the problem you're working on. Maybe that means taking a class in a different field or traveling to another country. In fact, the researchers say that people who live and work overseas are more likely to develop innovative products, processes, and businesses.

5. Networking

Many professionals network with the goal of selling their business or meeting someone with desired resources, like a connection to a high-profile client. But innovators simply aim to meet people with diverse ideas and perspectives.

To start networking like an innovator, try to attend two idea conferences annually: one that's related to your field and one that isn't. Talk to the people you meet and find out what unique problems they're facing; likewise, see if they can give you feedback on the issues you're working on.

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