Some babies are born with the double helixes that turn into blue eyes and heads of light, curly hair. Most people think that innovators are born with special genes, like those that determine physical features, that enable them to be innovators an endowment you either have or you don’t.
But our extensive analysis of research on the subject concludes that creativity is not simply a genetic trait, rather something that can be developed. In fact, the most comprehensive study confirming this was done by a group of researchers, Marvin Reznikoff, George Domino, Carolyn Bridges, and Merton Honeyman, who studied creative abilities in 117 pairs of identical and fraternal twins. Testing twins, ages fifteen to twenty-two, they found that only about 30 percent of the performance of identical twins on ten creativity tests could be attributed to genetics.
In contrast, roughly 80 percent to 85 percent of the twins’ performance on general intelligence (IQ) tests could be attributed to genetics.
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 percent to 40 percent of what we do innovatively stems from genetics. That means that about 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.
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 seem genetically gifted. But more important, they often described how they acquired innovation skills from role models who made it “safe” and 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 five hundred innovators compared to about five thousand executives led us to identify five discovery skills that distinguish innovators from typical executives. These skills are associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.
Innovators count on a cognitive skill that we call associational thinking or simply associating. Associating happens as the brain tries to synthesize 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.
The next four discovery skills trigger associational thinking by helping innovators increase their stock of building-block ideas from which innovative ideas spring. Specifically, innovators engage the following behavioral skills more frequently.
Innovators are consummate questioners who show a passion for inquiry. Their queries frequently challenge the status quo, just as Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs did when he asked, “Why does a computer need a fan?” They love to ask, “If we tried this, what would happen?” Innovators, like Jobs, ask questions to understand how things really are today, why they are that way, and how they might be changed or disrupted.
We found that innovators consistently demonstrate a high question-and-answer ratio, where questions not only outnumber answers in a typical conversation but also are valued at least as highly as good answers. Collectively, their questions provoke new insights, connections, possibilities, and directions.
Innovators are also intense observers. They carefully watch the world around them—including customers, products, services, technologies, and companies—and their observations help them gain insights into and ideas for new ways of doing things.
Jobs’ observation trip to Xerox PARC provided the germ of insight that was the catalyst for both the Macintosh’s innovative operating system and mouse and Apple’s current OSX operating system.
Innovators spend a lot of time and energy finding and testing ideas through a diverse network of individuals whose backgrounds and perspectives vary wildly. Rather than simply social networking or networking for resources, they actively search for new ideas by talking to people who may offer radically different views of things.
For example, Jobs talked with an Apple Fellow named Alan Kay, who told him to “go visit these crazy guys up in San Rafael, California.” The crazy guys were Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray, who headed up the computer graphics division of Industrial Light & Magic. The group created special effects for George Lucas’ movies. Fascinated by their operation, Jobs bought the division for $10 million, named it Pixar, and eventually took it public for $1 billion. Had he never chatted with Kay, he would never have wound up purchasing Pixar, and the world might never have thrilled to wonderful animated films like Toy Story, WALL-E, and Up.
Innovators are constantly trying new experiences and piloting new ideas. Experimenters unceasingly explore the world intellectually and experientially, holding convictions at bay and testing hypotheses along the way. They visit new places, try new things, seek new information, and experiment to learn new things.
Jobs, for example, tried new experiences all his life—from meditation and living in an ashram in India to dropping in on a calligraphy class at Reed College. These varied experiences would later trigger ideas for innovations at Apple Computer. Collectively, these discovery skills constitute the innovator’s DNA, or the code for generating innovative business ideas.
While you have your great-grandpa to thank for your freckles or the crook in your nose, the ability to be creative is mostly up to you. By strengthening the cognitive skill of associating, combined with the behavioral skills of questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting, your innovative intelligence is bound to grow, no matter what’s written on your DNA.
Adapted from a new book by Jeff Dyer, Hal B. Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen
Photographed by Bradley Slade
Reprinted with permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpt from The Innovator’s DNA. Copyright 2011 by Jeff Dyer, Hal B. Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen. All rights reserved.
About the Authors
Jeff Dyer is a professor at the Marriott School, where he serves as chair of the Department of Organizational Leadership and Strategy. Before joining BYU, Dyer was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he maintains an adjunct professor position and continues to teach Executive MBAs and in other executive programs. Dyer’s experience includes five years as a consultant and manager at Bain & Company, where he consulted clients such as Baxter International, Maryland National Bank, and First National Stores. He earned his PhD from UCLA.
Hal B. Gregersen is a professor of leadership at INSEAD and a senior fellow at Innosight, a management consultancy. He is the co-author of seven books, including It Starts with One: Changing Individuals Changes Organizations and Global Explorers: The Next Generation of Leaders. He and his wife live in France and Abu Dhabi, where he pursues his lifelong avocation, photography, and she pursues her lifelong love, painting, as part of a global community of social entrepreneurs dedicated to creating positive change through the arts. Gregersen was formerly the Donald Staheli Professor of Global Leadership and Strategy at the Marriott School.
Clayton M. Christensen is the architect of and the world’s foremost authority on disruptive innovation, a framework that describes the process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors. Christensen is the Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at Harvard University. He is a widely sought-after speaker, advisor, and board member. He currently serves as a member of the Marriott School’s National Advisory Council.
- Marvin Reznikoff, George Domino, Carolyn Bridges, and Merton Honeyman, “Creative Abilities in Identical and Fraternal Twins,” Behavioral Genetics 3, no. 4 (1973): 365–377. For example, the researchers gave the Remote Associations Test (RAT), in which they presented twins with three words and asked them to find a fourth word linking the three; they also gave them the Alternative Uses Test, in which they asked the subjects to brainstorm as many alternative uses for a common object—like a brick—and code how many total and divergent responses the subjects provided.
- See K. McCartney and M. Harris, “Growing Up and Growing Apart: A Developmental Meta-Analysis of Twin Studies,” Psychological Bulletin 107, no. 2 (1990): 226–237.
- Other studies that have found nurture trumps nature as far as creativity goes include: F. Barron, Artists in the Making (New York: Seminar Press, 1972); S. G. Vandenberg, ed., Progress in Human Behavior Genetics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968); R. C. Nichols, “Twin Studies of Ability, Personality, and Interest,” Homo 29 (1978), 158–173; “Creativity, Heritability, and Familiarity: Which Word Does Not Belong?” Psychological Inquiry 4 (1993): 235–237; N. G. Waller, T. J. Bouchard Jr., D. T. Lykkien, A. Tellegen, and D. Blacker, “Why Creativity Does Not Run in Families: A Study of Twins Reared Apart,” unpublished manuscript, 1992. For a summary of research in this area, see R. K. Sawyer, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).