Dr. Hal Gregersen co-author of The Innovator's DNA - Mastering the 5 Skills of Disruptive Innovators was a guest on my radio show recently. You can listen here.
Dr. Gregersen is Professor of Leadership at INSEAD where he pursues his vocation of executive teaching, coaching, consulting, and research. Before joining INSEAD, Dr. Gregersen taught at the London Business School, the Tuck School at Dartmouth, Helsinki School of Economics, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy—Tufts University, Brigham Young, Thunderbird, and the Turku School of Economics as a Fulbright Fellow. Dr. Gregersen has co-authored several books on leading innovation and change, such as It Starts With One: Changing Individuals Changes Organizations (Wharton, 2008), Global Explorers: The Next Generation of Leaders (Routledge, 1998).
The Innovator's DNA - Mastering the 5 Skills of Disruptive Innovators was the result of an 8-year study to uncover the origins of innovative—and often disruptive— business ideas. They interviewed nearly a hundred inventors of revolutionary products and services, as well as founders and CEOs of game-changing companies built on innovative business ideas. In the process they identified five discovery skills that distinguish innovative entrepreneurs and executives from ordinary managers:
Bottomline discovery? Being an innovator depends as much on our behavior as our mind. Change our behavior...change our skills as innovators. I loved this book!
Dr. Gregersen, thank you for being on the show and writing a great book.
Delighted to be with you! Thank you!
Now. Who are you, and your two co-authors, speaking to in this book? Describe the reader you had in mind.
The readers we had in mind were everyone at some point.
But, we’re starting at the top with senior management of companies or countries. And basically trying to influence how they behave themselves and how they can change the way they act in order to change what their companies, or countries, are doing.
My friend, Erika Andersen, coined a great phrase in her book Being Strategic. The phrase was reasonable aspiration or hoped-for future. And she asks:
What is your reasonable aspiration or hoped-for future?
What was your reasonable aspiration or hoped-for future with writing this book?
At a very fundamental level the innovation skills we write about in The Innovator’s DNA ...everyone o us had as kids. The fundamental hope is that we all get those skills re-ignited at work, at home, in our communities in order to generate better ideas.
At a very fundamental level it is thinking differently by acting differently and at the end making a real difference.
I loved that point you brought up that everyone of us has those skills lively in us as a child. Somewhere along the way we lost them. Somewhere in our conversation I hope we get into a discussion of where we lost those skills. But, I thought it was a fabulous point you brought up.
What metrics will you use to mark your progress towards that hoped-for future?
The hoped-for future, again it comes back to what we were just talking about. We were all once 4-year olds. And we knew how to do these innovation skills and get great ideas. And the oped-for progress or the metrics would be is that a higher proportion of not only Americans but anyone anywhere in the world would restart or re-ignite the use of these skills in order to generate ideas that make a difference.
In our work we notice people making a difference in their workplace. We notice these skills making a difference even in government setting, in community settings and even in home settings.
The metric is really at a personal level that a higher percentage of people will be generating new ideas for ways and products that are simply better than they have been in the past.
I loved your introduction. You had me hooked when you wrote:
A critical insight from our research is that one's ability to generate innovative ideas is not merely a function of the mind, but also a function of behaviors. ...if we change our behaviors, we can improve our creative impact.
At what point in your research did you have that insight? Describe that moment.
It became really clear, for me at least, when we started to interview these incredibly successful innovators, many of whom have disrupted entire industries in the work they do; it became clear as we heard the patterns in their stories.
Part of those patterns were not only the skills they engaged in by questioning and observing and networking for new ideas and thinking differently. But part of it is where those skills came from. And also how they essentially dealth those skills in other people.
Jeff Bezos is a perfect example. He essentially, as he was growing up, he was very committed to generating new ideas. And that partly came from having grandparents who were equally committed to helping Jeff Bezos learn how to solve new problems. So, in the summertime he would go out to their farm in Texas and essentially work with them on the farm. When the tractors broke down, they would fix them. When the animals had problems they would figure out the problem.
They didn’t call mechanics; they didn’t call veterinarians. They tried this; they tried that and after 15 different experiments they finally got something to work.
And what they realized with this or what Jeff Bezos realized was:
“If I experiment enough I can create a solution that will solve a problem.”
What crystallized for me when I heard Jeff Bezos story was it’s the same story I heard from Diane Green who founded VMWare whose parents let her sail across the Chesapeake Bay in a small dinghy exploring the world and experiencing new things.
I heard the same thing with Marc Benioff and parents and grandparents who took him to computer stores to pursue what he was doing. Flew him to work to help him understand how castles look and work so he could build computer programs around castles in the programs.
All of these people, one of the incredible insights, was they had adults around them who fostered these skills and kept them alive as they became adults. Then when they ended up getting these incredible business ideas but the really good ones got the great ideas themselves but these innovators were capable and consistent about teaching other people how to do these same things and how to create similar effects within their companies. They literally imprinted their own innovation skills deeply within their organizations that it’s made this really positive financial difference for their companies.
I love how you outline the relationships of developing, learning these skills but being able to pass on those skills to the next generation of people they can mentor.
What was the response within your group when you began to share that insight? Complete aha acceptance or....some initial skepticism?
I think some of the initial skepticism comes sometimes from wondering can you really teach these skills to someone especially adults. Sometimes people hear the stories I just told about Jeff Bezos and other folks who had the luxury of parents and grandparents who actually paid attention to their innovation skills and fostered and nurtured them as they were growing up. Some folks don’t have that luxury. They become adults and they go to work. And for the most part by the time we get through our education we have lost those skills. And we go to work and most companies we don’t engage those innovation skills and frankly we don’t care about these.
Now I’ll never forget talking about these skills recently in Cape Town, Africa. And after giving the speech, a young man in his early thirties came up and said:
“You know. I didn’t have parents who supported me in being innovative. I didn’t have grandparents who did that or neighbors, either. But about 5 years ago my boss for the first time who asked me for my ideas. And paid attention. And listened. And cared about them. And helped me nurture them into something that made a difference for the company. "
And over the next several years this man became confident enough in his own innovation that he started an incredible new business called GetAGreatBoss.com. Here’s the fundamentals of his business. He essentially linked want-ads to get a job to 360 degree assessment of great bosses.
For instance if I wanted to get a great job in Poughkeepsie I’d look on the want-ads and I could check Get a great and look at what kind of boss I am looking for.
It’s a fantastic service. And it came from one boss who paid attention to one employee’s ideas and helped him get good at delivering results with those new ideas.
It’s such a simple idea. And it shifts the whole dynamics of that conversation and puts a lot of tools and decision-making resources into the hands of the employee.
A lot of managers may shiver at the thought of those they manage becoming more disruptive. What are they missing?
[chuckle] Those same manners are going to shiver even more because they weren’t able to foster disruptive ideas within their company.
You know, at some point every business starts to decline. The way they do business starts to decline. take for example Dell Computer. It had an incredible run for 20 years. And then it started to go downhill and decline.
So, one of the challenges is that if I shiver at the idea of my employees having disruptive ideas...at some point somebody else who’s note afraid of those disruptive ideas will start a business and build an entirely new way of doing business in our industry. And they will come back into our space and essentially knock us off the top.
That’s the story of disruptive innovation.
For those managers who are afraid of it you might as well get used to it. Either they need to learn today how to create an organization that can at least in part of that company supports and encourages and tries to create incredibly disruptive ideas. Because if they company doesn’t do that somebody else will for them.
You know as you’re talking and I’m scribbling and listening and I’m connecting with what you said about the young fellow in Cape Town...you said the motivator for him to unleash his disruptive talents was he had a manager who finally a little caring, a willingness to invest a little time to listen to his ideas and encourage him to pursue them.
And taking your point a little further, it seems managers who are afraid of disruptive ideas may be afraid of showing that they care or have the skills to show that they are willing to listen to an employee. but nature being what it is people will find someone who cares.
Am I going to far out on this limb?
To me, you’re raising a fascinating angle. These skills, these 5 skills, they’re basically the following in terms of the actions we do:
- Ask provocative questions
- Observe the world like anthropologists
- Network for ideas
- Talk to people who are very different from us
- Experiment and prototype and try new things.
If I move my lens back from innovation and instead focus on just connecting well with my employees...guess what? Those same skills are equally relevant.
If I’ve got a boss who asks me interesting questions and listens to my provocative questions, if I’ve got a boss taking the time to observe me like an anthropologist and understand who I am, what my hopes and dreams are, what my skills are, what I do well, what I could do better at, how do I get better...provides all the stuff I need to become excellent at what I do. If they’re willing to experiment and let me try a different way of doing something and build the skill. Because anything we’re trying to do better by definition we don’t know what we’re doing and me make mistakes; so we have to learn.
Oddly enough these innovation skills are the same skills that great leaders use to develop their people’s capabilities. And when that happens employees check into work instead of checkout when they come to work in the morning.
You list the 5 skills, the 5 behaviors, and we’ll go over them quickly here:
Was there any priority in their listing? Is one more important than all the others?
They are all critical in their own way. And there is a bit of a sequencing thing that happens with them. And if I was to put my finger on one of these that seems to matter the most, it’s like a beginning point, it’s starting with a great question.
The challenge is that when we’re stuck with a problem and we’re stuck with a solution that is working today and you’re trying to figure out a new solution for tomorrow, the problem is we haven’t asked the right question to change the game and move it to a new place.
And so when companies 15 years ago were running enterprise software systems for big businesses and medium businesses and a few smaller enterprises, when those companies like CISCO and SAP and so-on would sell these massively expensive packages and install them in these organizations and they weren’t thinking of another solution.
Well, you get Marc Benioff who worked at CISCO for 25 years and was trying to figure out better solutions for small and medium-sized enterprises and he steps away from that situation. He takes a year’s sabbatical; he travels the world; he talks to different people. And ultimately he asks a different question. The question is:
“ Why do we have to deliver these enterprise software ticket, big price, packages.”
And then he puts a magical association together:
“Why can’t enterprise software be like Amazon.com?”
He changes the question.
“What if we put enterprise software on the web like Amazon sells books on the web.”
And that then led to Salesforce.com, which when it started 10 years ago was laughed out of the industry. People never believed he could put enterprise software in the cloud, in cloud computing.
But, Benioff changed the question. Then he did his homework. He made some critical observations. He talked to a lot of different people. Tried some experiments and prototypes. refined the idea with people around him. And ultimately his associational thought, or connecting the unconnected enterprise software on the web instead of in a server in a company was a breakthrough idea. That put him and his company, SalesForce.com, in our listing as the most innovative company in the world.
So, I would start with the question. And to do that I have to be generating better and better questions.
Part Two of our conversation will be published here on Saturday, July 30.
Part Three will be published on Tuesday, August 2.