Five Discovery Skills that Lead to Great Innovations

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Clayton Christensen and his coauthors in The Innovator’s DNA highlight five key skills that we can develop to become great innovators. The good news is that we do not have to be good at all five skills to be a good innovator. For example, Scott Cook of Intuit is strong in observational skills. Marc Benioff, founder of, is good at networking, Jeff Bezos’ strong suite is experimentation. Steve Jobs was strong at associating.

Research involving identical twins suggests that only about 20-25 per cent of our creativity ability is genetic. So close to 80% of our creative ability can be developed.

Five Discovery Skills


Strong innovators combine disparate pieces of information to come up with a new idea. Recently, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz came up with the idea of subsidizing the tuition of his employees who wanted to pursue their undergraduate degree. He combined seemingly unconnected pieces of information to solve the problem of employee retention. Firstly, the employee turnover at Starbucks was really high, almost 100%. Secondly. 70% of Starbuck’s employees were either pursuing or were interested in pursuing their undergraduate degree. Finally, the online education made it possible for employees to pursue their education during their spare time and from any location. He combined these pieces of information to design a program that would allow its workers to earn an online college degree at Arizona State University at a steeply discounted rate.


Some innovators are great at observation. Ratan Tata, the former CEO of Tata, conceived the idea of Tata Nano, a $2500 car using his keen sense of observation.

I observed families riding on two-wheelers – the father driving the scooter, his young kid standing in front of him, his wife seated behind him holding a little baby. It led me to wonder whether one could conceive of a safe, affordable, all-weather form of transport for such a family.

Tata Motors’ engineers and designers put their heart and soul for about four years in this project to realize this goal. The result was Tata Nano, a People’s Car, which is affordable and is built to meet safety requirements and emission standards.


When Jeff Bezos, the founder, was growing up, he used to spend time on his grandfather’s farm in the summer. When the farm equipment broke, Bezos would experiment with his grandfather to get the equipment fixed.

This knack for experimentation is now part of’s DNA. has built a revolutionary business model for retailers. Recently, Jeff Bezos announced that they are experimenting the use of drones to deliver their products in as little as 30 minutes to their customers.


Albert Einstein said; “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.”

Questioning attitude is innate in all great innovators. Jack Dorsey is the founder of two highly successful companies, Twitter and Square. He did so by asking two powerful questions. How can I update my friends in a pithy way about what I am up to? This led to launching of Twitter. How can any individual or small business easily accept payment by credit card? This question led to founding of Square.


Innovators seek people who are diverse and regularly engage in a discourse with them to get differing viewpoints. The diversity could take form of gender, industry, age, country of origin, or even politics. These discourses become a fertile ground for new ideas.

David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue Airways got the idea for paperless ticketing or e-ticketing by talking to one of his employees about the frustration of having to carry around paper tickets in order to give them to passengers flying on their planes. This conversation then led to a new approach to handling tickets.

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Here are some suggestions on how you can get better at discovering. If you are confronted with a problem, take a few minutes each day to write down questions about that problem. Over time these questions will change and so will your understanding of the problem. Take notes when observing others. When you talk to people reflect on what you learned from the conversation and what surprised you.

Talk to people who are different then you. If you are an Engineer go talk to a Marketer and vice versa. A combination of these exercises will start paying dividends. Eventually, thinking outside of the box will become a habit.


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