Jeff Dyer on “Discovery Skills” and what makes an innovator

As ASTD TechKnowledge 2014 kicks off, President and CEO Tony Bingham introduces Jeff Dyer to the stage. Jeff is author of the book “The Innovators DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovator“, PhD, teacher, researcher and prize-winner. His book has been cited over 10000 times. Today he will give us the keys to unlocking our own innovation DNA…

In classic presentation style, Dyer starts by quoting Dilbert, or rather, Dilbert’s manager: “Good managers hire people who are smarter than he or she is.” The paradox here is evident. If it’s true, this means the top managers must be the dumbest in the office. But if it’s false, then we are hiring dumb people! So what should we be doing? How can we unleash the talent of innovators?

Dyers first question is the perrenial “nature/nurture” issue: Are we born more intuitive and creative, ready to challenge the status-quo? Or is this something that is learnt?

According to research in psychology, about 80% of our raw intelligence is genetically based. BUT this raw-intelligence is the standard common-sense, knowledge-acquiring intelligence. But when it comes to the creative stuff, what really makes people able to change and do new things, only 1/3 of that “intelligence” is innate. Studies show that family culture, corporate culture, education no experience are what have the more impact on our ability to innovate. So we can learn it. Jeff Dyer has been trying to find out how…

Quoting studies on strong innovators and pulling together other research from diverse sources, Dyer tells us about the five things that count most to make an innovator.

The first of these is associative thinking, the ability to put things together that didn’t otherwise occupy the same space. Associative thinking starts with the ability to recognise opportunities that can bring some value to another situation, or another problem. Like the iPod dial that Dyer tells us was inspired by traditional dialling locks. Or how under-the-arm deodorant designers looked to ball-point pens for their ability to let liquid flow from a source. This ability to synthesise things is born out of experience (I’m already starting to worry about my kids standardised education programme) and so we need to build diverse experience to bring out innovation.

Testing our ability to think differerently, Dyer tests his theory that if we force associations we can come up with new ideas. He asks the audience: “How could a microwave design feature improve a dish-washer?” Several answers came from participants. What I found interesting was the reaction of the audience to my own suggestion to make the dishwasher shake food molecules of the plates. It made sense to me, but other participants laughed. Foolish boy! Is this indicative of how innovators are viewed in their organisation? (see Jef Staes‘ work on the percentage of people who say “NO” to new ideas…)

Dyer adds that there are four other things you need to get good at creating new ideas: Questioning, observing, networking and experimenting.

Really good innovators use a couple of specific question styles to find new ideas:

First of all, we need to force constraints in our questions to push us in a new direction. Tim Ferriss asks his readers these types of questions, for example: “What work would you do if you could only do one thing, or for 1 hour?”

Another type of question is the “blue sky” question: What if ALL constraints were removed? If anything could work?

Dyer suggests that these kind of questions will yield more creative answers. But more importantly, he says that effective brainstorming starts with question-storming; finding the right questions to brainstorm.

The next behaviour Dyer talks about is observing. Like the great Sherlock Holmes, we need to be able to see the details, the connections and the big-picture.

Innovative people see things other people don’t necessarily see. Like anthropologists, they have their eyes wide open. Dyer says that they are looking for surprises. They are looking for the details that others might miss and focused on the jobs to be done, rather than the tools that are used. Like all great product developers (and sales people) they are tuned into the desired end-result, rather than focused on the way it is currently being attacked. Looking from all angles, innovators observe what is going on and think differently about what is required to make improvements.

Dyer quotes a great example here with the “GE Adventure Series CT scanners“. Traditionally, MRI scans have been designed with one thing in mind: Scanning the body, looking at the details. But for the user, this can be extremely scary. For kids, it requires going into a new scary environment under stressful circumstances and being asked to be extremely still. Tough one! What have GE done? They have brought a little Disney to the experience. Check the link….

Observation in itself is an awesome tool in the organisation. But Dyer says it is not enough. If we want to have awesome observations, see new things and get new ideas, we need to literally step out of the box and into new environments. Enter the power of networking.

Effective innovating networkers seek out support and answers from diverse environments, cultures and functions. Dyer asks us to think about the 5 people in our network we go to when we have a problem. After 60 seconds he then asks:

  • Do you have people on your list that come from different companies?
  • Do you go to kids or old-age-pensioners?
  • Do you go to people who were born and raised in a different country to you?
  • Do you go to people from different functions or levels of the organisation?
  • Finally, Jeff Dyer tells us that if we want to innovative, we need to experiment. We need to try things out. We need to dare to try things out. In the terms of Jef Staes, we are talking about the pioneers who are willing to take the risk and see if and how things work. Innovators are not sure things will work, but they are willing to try. If organisations want to do things differently, they will need to be willing to run pilots and be open to failure.

    So, do want to innovate? Or help others develop their own innovation ability? Think about developing associative thinking, questioning skills, observing, networking and experimentation. Give people the time to innovate, to go out and think differently.

    And if you are wondering if you are a innovator? Go take the test….

    Good luck!

    Published by Dan Steer

    For the last 17 years, I have been helping businesses and individuals to achieve their goals through delivery of tailor-made learning and development initiatives. Most of the time, I deliver training, coach individuals, facilitate brainstorming sessions, round-table meetings and workshops. As a consultant, I help my clients to promote and profit from the infinite learning opportunities within and without their own organisation, drawing on my L+D management experience, strategic approach and creativity, As a speaker, I inspire through story, humour and pertinent little bits of theory. I believe that the world would be a better place if people were happily working on their mission with competence and alignment to personal values. As a freelance worker since 2008, I have helped more than 11000 individuals to improve their presentation, communication, commercial, leadership and negotiation skills. I confront people with their own behaviour and convictions, facilitating and giving pertinent feedback and clear ideas on where to continue good work and improve. I seek to satisfy my clients with creative and to-the-point solutions… …and I make music, but no-one pays me much for it yet :-) First single here:

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