Does your CEO want to make history?

This month I attended an online conference about innovation. It was organized by Pipeline on a virtual exhibition platform.

I have to say that this was a great way to listen to various seminars, network and wander the exhibition hall at your own time and from the comfort of your office. One could participate through asking questions via phone or network via messaging. If you register, you can get access to all the seminars and material.

The Innovators DNAOne seminar I attended was about disruptive innovation and the results of a 6+ years long research conducted by the professors Jeff Dyer, Clayton M. Christensen and Hal Gregersen. All of them are well known in the innovation space. They published an excerpt in a 2009 Harvard Business review article and now have produced a book about it also: The Innovator’s DNA – Mastering the five skills of disruptive innovators.

Innovation exists in many variations and each can have its legitimate place in the lifecycle of a company. Companies and thus its management might drive to maintain equilibrium and focus on reducing risk. It also could focus on innovation which increases efficiencies, refining (i.e. doing better in) existing areas or adopting successful ideas others are using.

But when we talk about the most innovative companies in the world, the Apples and Google’s, they embarked on the more risky journey of doing things differently. And not because they must do so, it’s because they want to do so. It is in their DNA – to paraphrase the authors. How does it get there?

The takeaway of the research for me is that for those companies, who are on the path of Schumpeter (see another Bearing blog entry) a special skill set of their leadership is pre-dominant.

In his presentation, Jeff distinguishes between what he calls “Discovery-driven Executives” and “Execution-driven Executives”.

Important personality traits of Discovery Driven Executives are:

a) Questioners Adding or removing constraints by asking “what if…”
b) Observers Gaining new insights, connecting the dots better, adding experiences from unrelated areas, look from different angles
c) Experimenters Don’t be afraid to test things, check for A/B alternatives, test hypotheses, reverse engineer, aim for quantities
d) Networkers Review your idea with different audiences, seek diverse input and gain a new perspective

While Execution Driven Executives could be characterized as

a) Analyzers OK, you have seen those valuable skills before. They do have their place, but have the danger of focusing a lot on   the status quo and leaving little room to leap creatively into the future.
b) Planners
c) Detail Oriented Implementers
d) Self Disciplined


Now Jeff’s research claims that Founder CEOs working at innovative companies score to a high degrees high on the traits of discovery driven. While Business Unit Manager, Functional Manager and also “Non-founder CEOs of Average companies” share to a high degree the Competencies of Execution Driven Executives. In short, while those characteristics should help you to be a good manager, “truly innovative companies have innovative leaders which lead by example”. They are actively involved in the innovation process and contribute heavily. What makes them successful is that through those mentioned skills, they have a higher chance to “connect the dots” of seemingly unrelated events. They are masters of association, allowing them to see things other just don’t.

But coming back to my title, they share one more trait according to the research: If they don’t want to make the world a better place in general, they do at least want to make history by offering something special. And this they cannot do without taking risks by pushing the limits and questioning the status quo.

So, if you feel your CEO has the drive to make history, and shares the described personality traits, your company is one step closer to offer the world some truly disruptive innovation! 😉

Now for all the others, there is still some good news at the end: Jeff made a point in highlighting that research stipulates creativity performance is for the most part trainable and not based on genetics. Furthermore, not only individuals, but also organizations can learn those “traits of creativity”. The more the personality traits of Discovery Driven Executives are encouraged and fostered from CEO to last team member, the higher the chances for innovative (and if you want disruptive) ideas will emerge. If you want to have loads of examples on how those skills are defined and applied, I recommend reading the book The Innovator’s DNA (or starting with the HBR article). It is an easy read and even valuable if one does not aim to make history just now.

This research is in line with Tom Kelley’s assessment, that certain skills and personality types are necessary in a team (as well as in a company) to seed the innovation process. Even if Jeff Dyer focused in the seminar on executives, the book and research definitely make a point of building teams with those mentioned skills with the help of complementary team members.

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