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Innovative entrepreneurs are developed not born

By Insead Knowledge

Amajor new study involving some 3,500 executives has highlighted the key skills that innovative and creative entrepreneurs need to develop. The six-year-long research into disruptive innovation by Insead professor Hal Gregersen, Jeffrey Dyer of Brigham Young University and Clayton Christensen of Harvard, outlines five discovery skills you need. But, says Gregersen, you don't have to be "great in everything".

Some business leaders such as Apple's Steve Jobs and Amazon's Jeff Bezos rely on their particular strengths since innovative entrepreneurs rarely excel at all five discovery skills. For example, Scott Cook of Intuit is strong in observational skills. Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce.com, does a lot of networking. As for Bezos, "experimentation was his forte", while Jobs is "incredibly strong at associating".

The five skills, Gregersen says, are "a habit, a practice, a way of life" for innovators. Although Gregersen and his co-authors use the DNA metaphor, innovative entrepreneurs are actually made or developed, rather than born. "We each have unique, fixed physical DNA," says Gregersen, "but in terms of creativity, we each have a unique set of learnable skills we rely on to get to the ideas that will give us some insight."

Research involving identical twins suggests that only about 20-25 per cent of our creativity ability is genetically driven. "This means the other 75-80 per cent comes from the world we live in," Gregersen says. "So even if I took those identical twins and you have one twin who sits at home, watches TV, doesn't try to generate a new business idea, and you've got a second twin who talks to 10 people from 10 diverse perspectives, who goes out and maybe observes the world, takes notes and pictures, and constantly asks questions – which of those identical twins is likely to get the creative ideas?" "It's the one out there doing the creative actions," he says. "They might get a bit of a boost from genetics but that's not the core of what delivers results." Here are the five discovery skills.

Associating: Creative entrepreneurs 'connect the dots to make unexpected connections. They combine pieces of what may seem disparate pieces of information until you've got this innovative new idea." Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, was interested in calligraphy and this led to his company producing user-friendly, graphics-based Macs. "Later, when Jobs was trying to figure out the Macintosh screen, and the "what you see is what you get" sort of image, he connected the dots back to what he had learnt in calligraphy, and it was a key component of making that computer work."

Observing: Some of the most innovative entrepreneurs are "intense observers", Gregersen says. For example Scott Cook, founder of Intuit. We talked about how he got the idea for Quicken software. He watched how his wife was frustrated doing their finances manually. She purchased some software that was equally frustrating." It was then that Cook thought he might be able to develop a product that could help his wife "solve that problem more effectively". After a 'sneak preview' of an early Apple computer, Cook got a "sense of what it might look like to have a user-interface, a mouse and be able to have things like checks on screen like what they should be". From this sprang Quicken.

Experimenting: When Jeff Bezos, founder of internet retailer Amazon, was growing up, he used to spend time on his grandfather's farm. When machinery broke down, his grandfather would try to fix it himself. They would "experiment, until it would work again." So Jeff grew up with that kind of attitude and mindset, that "if

I am confronted with a challenge, I can figure out a solution", Gregersen says.

"That kind of experimentation spilled over into Amazon." At first, the idea had been to sell books via the internet without inventory. "That was the initial idea.It took him seven, eight, nine years of experimentation to build the capacity to have warehouses full of books." As a consequence of his experimentation, Bezos "built this business model that we now call Amazon today."

Questioning: Questions are at the core of what we do. We can be observing the world or experimenting, "but if I have no questions in my mind, I'm pretty unlikely to get any observations or insights or 'ahas' that I never saw or thought about," Gregersen says. "And this kind of questioning attitude and mentality is just rampant in these folks." "I'll never forget when I sat down with AG Lafley [the former CEO of Procter & Gamble]. I had a series of questions related to research about global leadership and he asked me far more questions than I asked him because he was curious about what was going on in research."

Another was Michael Dell. "I had the naivete to ask Michael if he had any favourite questions he likes to ask when he wanders around the world. And he instantly responded with a quizzical look, like 'That's a dumb question.' He said: "Hal if I had some favourite questions, everybody would know the answers. Instead, I try to construct a question for every conversation that might generate information that I never had before'.

Networking: Typically, when we think of networking, we think of this in terms of jobs, a career or maybe social life. But when it comes to creativity, it takes on a different meaning. "Innovators are intentional about finding diverse people who are just the opposites of who they are, that they talk to, to get ideas that seriously challenge their own," Gregersen says.

"It doesn't come instantly. Sometimes the conversations provide their own insights." David Neeleman, Founder of JetBlue Airways and now CEO of Azul Airline, got the idea for e-ticketing, Gregersen says, by talking to one of his employees about the frustration of having to carry around paper tickets to give passengers flying on planes.

"So that conversation then led to a new idea and a way of doing things differently," he says.

Practising and developing the skills:

Gregersen says the five discovery skills may seem intuitive but when it comes to the actual practice, "doing them is counterintuitive". That's because the adult world in which we live "does not value these actions". Gregersen's advice? Start acting like a child again: "Not 100 per cent of the time, that would be absurd. But 20 to 25 per cent of our time, act like a four-year-old again," he says. "Because all these skills are what four-year-olds do. They ask thousands of questions.

They observe and talk to just about anybody."

"Innovation is a habit," Gregersen says. "And for these innovative entrepreneurs it's a way of life. It's the fabric of who they are. And for others who aren't that way, they could be: if they choose to act different and think different."


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