Much of Christensen’s success can be traced back to his highly acclaimed book, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. The Economist named this one of the most important business books ever written and it won Global Business Book Award as the best business book of the year (1997). Articles written by Christensen have received the Abernathy, Newcomen, James Madison, and Circle Prizes.
His biography is littered with variety: starting as a missionary for his church, he went to Korea and became fluent in the language. He then worked as a management consultant and went on to co-found Ceramics Process Systems, and helped to build other businesses, including an innovation consulting firm, a public policy think tank and a boutique investment firm. At Harvard, he is the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration.
Five Behaviours of a Successful Innovator
With Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen, Clayton Christensen laid out the recipe for innovation in business as five key skills: associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.
Associating: drawing links between unrelated ideas or disciplines. Author Frans Johanssen described this phenomenon as “the Medici effect.”. The Medici family funded funded sculptors, scientists, poets, painters, and architects in 15th century Florence. When these individuals influenced each other’s work, groundbreaking ideas were born. The result was the Renaissance – one of the most innovative eras the world has seen. Innovative thinkers are naturally able to connect ideas that others find unrelated.
Questioning: Challenging ideas, thoughts, opinions makes for a stronger outcome. Not just ‘Is there a need for this?’ of ‘will it work?’ but ‘what if we try it that way or this?’
Observing: absorbing information through observation is as important as forcing information through questioning. Observe the competition, watch people from different departments, see problem solving in everyday activities like commuting or food shopping. Referencing across industries, as the next skill promotes, comes from being able to see success being achieved by others and recognise its value
Networking: This is not meeting people in your field who can be of professional use to you, it is much broader in scope and carries far more potential. Meet people from different professions, backgrounds, different audiences to yoru product or service and you will stand the best chance of getting a well-rounded view of what you are offering and how it is seen by others. Insights offered in this type of networking could take you in an entirely new direction than your focus groups and board meetings.
Experimenting: Our interview with Makeshift co-founder Stef Lewandowski says as much – experimenting, hacking, iteration gives you the chance to test things before committing to them or scrapping them out of hand. Consuming a variety of authors, filmmakers, exhibitions, cultures, personalities, colours and places can only improve your own offering by giving you’re a deeper pool of experiences to draw from.
The latter four ideas feed the first, helping those who are not naturally inclined to association learn to connect problems and merge fields for an innovative outcome.
To get to this point, the authors committed themselves to the findings of Marvin Reznikoff, George Domino, Carolyn Bridges, and Merton Honeymon, who studied creative abilities in 117 pairs of identical and fraternal twins. This and six subsequent studies by other parties showed that while intelligence can be attributed to genetics, “roughly two-thirds of our innovation skills still come through learning—from first understanding the skill, then practicing it, and ultimately gaining confidence in our capacity to create.”
They looked at successful innovative companies and pinpointed where their ideas come from. “We were intrigued to learn that at most companies, top executives do not feel personally responsible for coming up with strategic innovations. Rather, they feel responsible for facilitating the innovation process. In stark contrast, senior executives of the most innovative companies—a mere 15% in our study—don’t delegate creative work. They do it themselves.”
So innovation has steeper success when senior executives hold the reins. Perhaps this can be attributed to attitudes. They use the example of twins given the same task of coming up with a new business venture but taking different approaches: one insulates their thinking while the other talks with ten people from a range of backgrounds, visits start-ups, tries out three new products, builds a prototype and ask five people for feedback and ask the question ‘What if I tried this?’ at least ten times a day. The two approaches – perhaps representative of different attitudes to a project from different levels of employee, whether trainee of senior executive – would harvest very different results.
Outlining the skills displayed by the most creative executives, they found that innovative entrepreneurs spend 50% more time on these five skills than those who don’t innovate. The fact these skills can be cultivated, as shown in the research by Reznikoff et al, is good news for creatively aspirational business people.