First and foremost, innovators count on a cognitive skill that we call “associational thinking” or simply “associating.” Associating happens as the brain tries to synthesize and make sense of novel inputs. It helps innovators discover new directions by making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas. Innovative breakthroughs often happen at the intersection of diverse disciplines and fields. Author Frans Johanssen described this phenomenon as “the Medici effect,” referring to the creative explosion in Florence when the Medici family brought together creators from a wide range of disciplines—sculptors, scientist, poets, philosophers, painters, and architects. As these individuals connected, they created new ideas at the intersection of their respective fields, thereby spawning the Renaissance, one of the most innovative eras in history. Put simply, innovative thinkers connect fields, problems, or ideas that others find unrelated.
The other four discovery skills trigger associational thinking by helping innovators increase their stock of building-block ideas from which innovative ideas spring. Specifically, innovators engage the following behavioral skills more frequently:
Questioning. Innovators are consummate questioners who show a passion for inquiry. Their queries frequently challenge the status quo, just as [Apple Inc. co-founder Steve] Jobs did when he asked, “Why does a computer need a fan?” They love to ask, “If we tried this, what would happen?” Innovators, like Jobs, ask questions to understand how things really are today, why they are that way, and how they might be changed or disrupted. Collectively, their questions provoke new insights, connections, possibilities, and directions. We found that innovators consistently demonstrate a high Q/A ratio, where questions (Q) not only outnumber answers (A) in a typical conversation, but are valued at least as highly as good answers.
Observing. Innovators are also intense observers. They carefully watch the world around them—including customers, products, services, technologies, and companies—and the observations help them gain insights into and ideas for new ways of doing things. Jobs’s observation trip to Xerox PARC provided the germ of insight that was the catalyst for both the Macintosh’s innovative operating system and mouse, and Apple’s current OSX operating system.
Networking. Innovators spend a lot of time and energy finding and testing ideas through a diverse network of individuals who vary wildly in their backgrounds and perspectives. Rather than simply doing social networking or networking for resources, they actively search for new ideas by talking to people who may offer a radically different view of things. For example, Jobs talked with an Apple Fellow named Alan Kay, who told him to “go visit these crazy guys up in San Rafael, California.” The crazy guys were Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray, who headed up a small computer graphics operation called Industrial Light & Magic (the group created special effects for George Lucas’s movies). Fascinated by their operation, Jobs bought Industrial Light & Magic for $10 million, renamed it Pixar, and eventually took it public for $1 billion. Had he never chatted with Kay, he would never have wound up purchasing Pixar, and the world might never have thrilled to wonderful animated films like Toy Story,WALL-E, and Up.
Experimenting. Finally, innovators are constantly trying out new experiences and piloting new ideas. Experimenters unceasingly explore the world intellectually and experientially, holding convictions at bay and testing hypotheses along the way. They visit new places, try new things, seek new information, and experiment to learn new things. Jobs, for example, has tried new experiences all his life—from meditation and living in an ashram in India to dropping in on a calligraphy class at Reed College. All these varied experiences would later trigger ideas for innovations at Apple Computer. Collectively, these discovery skills—the cognitive skill of associating and the behavioral skills of questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting—constitute what we call the innovator’s DNA, or the code for generating innovative business ideas.