Login or signup

Can You Learn Disruptive Innovation?

Or are truly creative people born with something special? Clayton Christensen discusses his latest book, The Innovator's DNA, which analyzes the traits of CEOs who have disrupted their industries.

Courtesy Company


The man who coined "disruptive innovation" more than a decade ago is still transforming the way we think about the powerful ideas. In his new book, Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, Clayton Christensen, along with Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen, moves beyond analysing the process of disrupting an industry, delving into the very roots of creativity. Its timing is apt: a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 "leadership competency" of the future. In their follow-up to The Innovator's Dilemma, Christensen, Dyer, and Gregersen analyze an eight-year study of the origins of innovative business ideas. The research is augmented by interviews with people such as Amazon's Jeff Bezos, eBay's Pierre Omidyar, and Salesforce.com's Marc Benioff—through which the authors examine traits these innovators share, and, subtly raise the question: can anyone emulate these traits in order to innovate? Christensen, a Harvard business professor, seems to think it's possible. He spoke with Inc.com's Christine Lagorio about the need for innovators need to ditch their troves of data, the counterintuitive significance of networking, and his favorite innovation that comes out of business school (spoiler alert: it's his own).

It seems like your book is arguing that people can simply teach themselves how to be innovative. Is that true?
Well, kind of. We have a sense that there are some people who are just born with an instinct to do the things that we describe. And a few are never going to get there. And there are a few who are going to get there by learning what they can do.

In that sense, is this a self-help book?
Absolutely. Plain old ordinary people like you and I can do remarkable things. It's kind of, for the elect few, intuition. What we've tried to do in this book is codify it and make what was intuition explicit, so that the rest of us can copy what they do.

Your research in the past is focused on the process of innovation. Why did you turn the focus to specific people at the head of successful companies this time?
Some of the insights in the book didn't necessarily come from wildly successful people at the heads of business. The insights come from dozens of case studies we've done, and thousands of students we've worked with on the studies. It's actually broad theory and broad statistical analysis that is the reasoning behind what we've done. When we highlight a well known innovator, the story about the innovator is our mechanism to communicate what we've learned.

Of the five skills of disruptive innovators you lay out in the book, the least intuitive to me is "networking," which sounds a little corporate, buttoned up, and, well, not exactly "disruptive." Why is networking important?
It's not our idea. We needed to have it be there, really. It draws from something from the beginning from Thomas Kuhn's wonderful book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. And a guy named Frans Johansson's The Medici Effect, which notes that real innovation often comes from the intersection of two fields who have never intersected in that way before. When ideas come together. Networking is a way to facilitate the interaction of this with that, which can lead to something else entirely new.

What's the last innovative thing that's come out of a business school?
Could I nominate myself? It isn't just the theory of disruption per se, but the insight that data is only available about the past. The way most business schools teach is that students should be data-based and fact-driven in how they work and research. But because real data is only available about the past, business schools relegate students to working on the past. There's no data on the future. The only way you can look through the fog into the future is if you have really solid theories. Whether you like it or not, every time you are looking into the future, you are using a theory. My biggest contribution to management, health care, and education, is that a theory well conceived is a very valuable thing.

Have any theories impressed you lately?
That's a great question. I think there have been a lot of bad theories that have emerged to explain network marketing, in social networks, and the value of networks. There is something there, but I don't think there is a really good theory there to explain it. Therefore there isn't a really good business model for making money in this world [of network marketing]. There is huge value attributed to this model, but I don't think there's a good theory to describe it. So, that area is wide open.

Last updated: Aug 5, 2011

Register on Inc.com today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Comment and share features

Or sign up using: