Can You Train Yourself to Be the Next Steve Jobs?

Last Updated Jul 20, 2011 7:07 AM EDT

Are innovators born or made?

Most people believe that you are either born innovative and creative, or you're not. But a growing body of evidence suggests that you can learn creative problem-solving and, with practice, hone your innovative abilities. "Studies show that when identical twins were separated at birth and given IQ tests from ages 16 to 24, that 80% of performance was based on genetics," says Jeff Dyer, co-author with Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen of The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. "But on creativity tests, only 30% of performance was based on genetics."

Dyer says that what we learn from role models and how we're taught to ask questions directly impacts our ability to be innovative. "If you understand the behaviors that bring in new knowledge, you're much more likely to trigger new ideas related to problems you're trying to solve in your life or in your company," he says. So what exactly are the behaviors that spark innovation?

  • Ask the right questions. "We all know that questions are important as a catalyst for creative thought," says Dyer. "But some people are much more inclined to question the status quo, and they tend to ask 'what if?' kinds of questions." One technique that can be used to ask more provocative questions, says Dyer, is to impose constraints. "If you're looking for innovative ideas on how to grow, you might ask 'what if we were legally prohibited from selling our projects to any of our current customers? How would we make money next year?'" Or, you might take the Steve Jobs approach and try eliminating constraints by asking "what kind of product would we create if money were no object." Either way, says Dyer, "creativity loves constraints."
  • Observe what others don't see. "Some of us do it better than others," says Dyer. "The kinds of observations that seem to make a difference for business owners are observations of customers and competitors." Scott Cook of Intuit, for instance, always paid special attention to behavior that was in some way surprising. "The anomalies are the key," says Dyer. "When you find the surprise, that may lead you to observe something no one has ever seen before, and that can trigger ideas for new businesses." The best observers, he says, are people who have lived in multiple countries for three months or longer. "You more naturally tend to observe because things are different."
  • Tap the right networks. "Typically people network for the purpose of accessing resources," says Dyer. "And they want to talk to people like themselves." But innovators, he says, are more likely to target people who are not like them. Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, frequently noted that he learned more from a mail room employee than from the CEO when visiting a new company. "You want to talk to people who are in different social networks than you are in," says Dyer. "People not in your industry or in your company are more likely to give you a perspective that you haven't heard before. The key is to talk to people from other countries, of different ages, political persuasions, and ethnic groups."
  • Be savvy with your experiments. "Richard Branson has had 300 different Virgin businesses," says Dyer. "Some have worked and some have failed. He is prepared to try anything once." The idea is that you pilot your ideas quickly, get them out into the marketplace, and not be afraid of failure. There are two other ways to experiment, notes Dyer: 1. Take things apart, then put them back together again. That's what Michael Dell did with an off-the-shelf computer, and the process gave him the idea for the Dell direct model. 2. Learn a new skill. After Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College, he decided to take a calligraphy class simply because he was intrigued by the art. Ten years later, that exposure to calligraphy informed Job's design of the Macintosh, which was the first computer with beautiful typography.
Dyer says that the more time you spend engaging in the above four behaviors, the more likely you are to trigger the fifth skill of disruptive innovators -- "associational thinking." That's what the brain does when it attempts to make connections across seemingly unrelated problems or ideas. "Innovative breakthroughs often happen at the intersection of diverse disciplines and fields," notes Dyer. "We found that founders and CEOs who ranked among the top 100 innovative companies by BusinessWeek spent 20% more time on these behaviors than a typical CEO." And, he adds, those innovative leaders imprint the behaviors that fuel creativity into their organizations so that everyone becomes an innovator.

What do you think? Are innovators made or born? What are you doing at your company to foster a culture of innovation?

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