Book Review: The Innovator's DNA

The Innovator's DNA by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen, Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA (2011). 296 + vi pages, $29.95.

Clayton Christensen is perhaps most famous for identifying the concept of a disruptive innovation - a new technology that introduces new markets and new ways that people interact with products. For example, cell phones with cameras have entirely changed how people interact with one another. As a result of the technology, we share more information more frequently with others through social media like Facebook, Twitter, and of course, ChEnected.

Christensen's latest offering, The Innovator's DNA, co-authored by Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen, takes a look at what skills lead a person to innovation and creativity. Since chemical engineers are charged with finding creative and inventive solutions in materials, energy, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and many other industries, The Innovator's DNA is both engaging and important to read. This book has also won the best title in the innovation category by the Chartered Management Institute (UK).

Four of the skills that The Innovator's DNA identifies are behavioral: questioning, experimenting, observing, and networking. Associating, the fifth skill, is considered a cognitive process. All of the creative skills can be learned, whereas our personalities are set to a larger degree by nature (p. 22).

As engineers, we are trained to question and experiment. Unfortunately, as people age and mature, we tend to be more cautious in our questioning, yet it was a child who inquired of Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera, why she could not see the photograph immediately (pg. 75-76).

Some large corporations also tend to filter a chemical engineer's natural urge to experiment by restrictive financial analyses too early in the discovery process. A.G. Lafley, the former CEO of Proctor and Gamble, often subscribed to the philosophy of "fail often, fail early," leading to a high degree of creative products emerging in the consumer goods industry.

Since many engineers are considered (and may consider themselves to be) introverts, observing also comes to us naturally. However, the more unique and diverse situations we observe, the more information we gain in order to solve future problems. The authors' advice is to put yourself in new places, just as Steve Jobs did when he took a calligraphy class in Oregon, leading to the eye-catching fonts on the first Macintosh computers (pg. 138).

On the other hand, networking takes a bit more work for most us. Networking involves learning new things, making friends with people not like ourselves, and viewing both experts and non-experts with different backgrounds and perspectives. For example, an excellent AIChE webinar recently taught us about the making of wine (the archived version can be viewed here). This introduced me, personally, to new concepts of grape varieties. I'm originally from the Pacific Northwest, so I have a strong loyalty to Washington wines, yet now I'm venturing to try new Spanish and Italian wines.

Finally, associating is described in The Innovator's DNA, in Chapter 2, before the chapters dedicated to behavioral skills. I think associating actually follows questioning, experimenting, observing, and networking. Associating is the perhaps the greatest holistic skill we can use as chemical engineers to solve problems by drawing on a lifetime of different and complex experiences.

Each chapter on the five innovation skills concludes with a list of tips you can immediately deploy to enhance your creativity. Since reading The Innovator's DNA, I've been regularly taking action on these tips and I feel more comfortable stepping outside of my comfort zone to test new ideas.

Finally, the most valuable advice of all is captured in Appendix C. Chemical engineers of all generations should take networking to heart and encourage a child or young person to learn and to share our love of scientific innovation. Give a child a chance to see your work, share books that will stretch children's minds, and ask young people to help you solve a problem.

The Innovator's DNA is a fascinating book, filled with stellar examples, and of course tips, to enhance creativity in your life. I highly recommend this book to chemical engineers for both personal and organizational development.

You can learn more about The Innovator's DNA at the authors' website.

What helps drive your most innovative moments?

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