Saturday, December 5, 2009

HBR December 2009 article: The Innovator's DNA




Last month I’d glanced at the Harvard Business Review’s December 2009 article called The Innovator’s DNA, by J.H. Dyer, H.B. Gregersen, and C.M. Christensen and didn’t think to blog on it. Then this week, Chris Broxon pointed the article out again and I reread it. It is a fairly narrow piece, and as Chris was saying on Thursday, often people talk only about the idea generation part of innovation and not the implementation. This article is about people who come up with these ideas.

The thrust of the article is that “Five ‘discovery skills’ separate true innovators from the rest of us.” Strangely the article points to Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, eBay's Pierre Omidyar, and A.G. Laffley at P&G asking "how these people come up with groundbreaking new ideas? If it were possible to discover the inner workings of the master's minds, what could the rest of us learn about how innovation really happens?"

The authors go on to say that most top executives facilitate innovation. But “in stark contrast, senior executives of the most innovative companies…don’t delegate creative work. They do it themselves.”

This is a strange statement especially when I think of Steve Jobs or particularly A.G. Laffley. Laffley is famous for expanding innovation at P&G by getting ideas from outside the company. That’s delegating creativity at the extreme.

If we look at Jobs, one of the earliest things Apple Macintosh had before Microsoft was the windows interface. But that wasn’t invented by Jobs, it was done first by Xerox at PARC. Likewise, Jobs didn’t come up with the idea for the iPod. The digital audio player was invented by Kane Kramer of England, who is credited with inventing the device in 1979. For iPod's software, Apple also went outside and used 3rd party PortalPlayer's platform. To top off the theme, the name ‘iPod’ came from outside of Apple, created by Vinnie Chieco, a freelance copywriter.

Even the icon of the great innovator, Thomas Edison was hardly the sole inventor the mythology portrays. He worked closely with folks in his Menlo Park lab. Charles Batchelor was the fellow he worked most closely with. In fact, why would the ‘sole inventor’ Edison split all patent royalties 50-50 with Batchelor. Because Edison was not the sole inventor! One of the lab assistants once said “Edison is in reality a collective noun and means the work of many men.”1 Thomas Edison was an amazing front man, the salesman/showman dealing with clients and investors.

Likewise, that’s what Jobs, Bezos, Omidyar, and Laffley are. They are salesmen and leaders first. What makes their companies successful is their openness to other people’s invention. They are networkers. Today the key to innovation progress is found in the way companies exploit the internal network structures and connect them to the outside world. And that is not new, it’s what Edison and Henry Ford did so well.

Next time we’ll look at the authors’ five 'discovery skills'.

[1] Andrew Hargadon Focus vol. VIII/1 pp 32-35 2004

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