The 5 Innovator’s Skills: Your Complete Path To Innovation

No way.

You can't just copy what's out there.

Successful entrepreneurs innovate.

And if you’re after innovation, you're after the new.

New stuff you can use to wow your customers.

New value propositions. New ways of reaching them. New ways of solving their greatest pain point.

The Innovator's DNA lights the way.

It shows us the 5 skills every innovator needs to discover the new.

In this 5-part series, we'll do a deep dive on each.

Use it to accelerate your journey to the space of valuable ideas.

1) Observation: How To Discover Good Business Ideas In 2 Simple Steps

How do top innovators get their ideas? Why do they rise above all others?

The Innovator’s DNA gives us a 5-piece answer to this puzzle. Co-authored by Clayton Christensen – you know, the guy who first figured out The Innovator’s Dilemma – you and I would be wise to listen.


It all starts with observation. Becoming aware of everything that’s going on is critical to getting ideas and devising creative solutions.

Akio Morita, the cofounder of Sony, was famous for observing his potential customers and using his insights to sense unmet needs.

Steve Jobs would literally go to the park and watch how people listen to music.

And supposedly, Einstein gained a key insight for his theory of general relativity by watching a painter fall off a scaffold.

Suppose you’re selling screen protectors for iPads. Everything’s going well.

But you get a lot of annoying emails from customers asking if their orders will arrive in time for a specific day.

Enter observation: your customers are clearly concerned about timing. Are they buying those protectors as gifts?

A few conversations later you verify this: yep, some of them do that. So you add a special gift-wrap option at checkout, thus increasing your revenue.

Bingo: you’ve just discovered a good idea by being more observant.


Careful observation is a lost art. Anyone online in 2015 is bombarded with a ton of images, text and videos.

No time to bring anything into full view. Zero-second attention spans.

Thing is, you gain an advantage if you can work against that. Actively take time to observe things and people.

Your customers, sure. And other people’s customers. But as so often in innovation, you want diversity. You can look at anything.

Observe interesting companies. Forget about what they say…what do they DO?

Jeff Bezos likes to look at ‘really bad innovations’ to see how to improve them. There’s one problem though.

Once you’ve done a lot of something, you’ll see only what you want to see. Blind spots develop. Tunnel vision.

How can you widen your awareness and bring new things into view? Let me show you two ways:


Yes, sounds vague. I know.

But there are many kinds of seeing. A painter and a programmer will look at the world in very different ways.

Seth Godin recommends we read How to Use Your Eyes by James Elkins. Sage advice. It’ll change the way you look at things – and show you how much there is to see in even the simplest objects.

My advice: look at how doctors interpret X-ray images or CT scans. Or how geologists can distinguish between different kinds of rock.

Most people cannot do such things, but they can. Hence they have rare powers of observation. Powers you could use.


Look at things without emotion.

I know – you’re an entrepreneur and so much of what we do involves emotional awareness. But try removing emotion from the picture for just a second. If you don’t, your judgement could be clouded, quite literally.

Consider Venus. Decades ago, credible people thought there could be dinosaur-like creatures on Venus. Why? They couldn’t see anything…and so there must be clouds, so there must be water, so there must be life and thus there could be dinosaurs.

I’ll let Carl Sagan sum this up for you:

“Observation: I can’t see a thing. Conclusion: Dinosaurs.”

You see the value of dispassionate observation? Alright – so you’re clear on this. Now what?

There’s more to do. There are five pieces to the innovation puzzle.

2) Idea networking: 3 Steps to Develop Your Ideas With Other People

You should’ve been there.

A vast room abuzz with highly talented people. All listening, talking, pondering, considering.

All eager to learn, to share, to contribute.

No NDAs. No pitching. No ‘favor-for-a-favor’ nonsense.

No fluff.

Only passionate entrepreneurs talking about ideas and each other’s ventures. Anything from half-baked hunches to full-fledged businesses.

That’s where I’ve just had the honor of being: the Global Innovation Summit, situated in the heart of Silicon Valley.

No better setting than this to tell you about the next innovator’s skill: idea networking.

You see, great ideas aren’t born as a 0 or a 1. They’re halfway bridges.

Messy. Chaotic. Embryonic.

Most great ideas first take shape in a partial, incomplete form. They have the seeds of something profound, but they lack a key element that can turn the hunch into something truly powerful. And more often than not, that missing element is somewhere else, living as another hunch in another person’s head.

– Steve Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From Here’s how idea networking works.

You’re not looking for resources. You’re not gunning for an intro, VC capital, cofounders, talent or whatever.

You’re on the hunt for ideas that matter. Ideas that connect.

What does this look like, and why does it help?

Suppose your company specializes in finding patterns in the stock market. You have 14 days to find a pattern before a major event – say, an IPO of a hot tech startup. One problem: there’s way too much data. Algorithms aren’t good enough. You need human eyeballs.

You think you might be able to do it if you can get lots of temp workers to sift through the data.

But you don’t have enough time to find and train them.

Acting on a hunch, you introduce this idea to a scientist friend of yours. She tells you this problem reminds her of Stardust@Home. She then helps you develop your idea: when you have a lot of data that only humans can analyze, split the data into lots of super-simple problems, each requiring a human to make an snap judgement. Put the whole thing online and incentivize people to sign up.

You’ve just used idea networking – developing ideas with the help of other people. You thought you should hire people, but what you needed was citizen science applied to financial data.

But what is an idea, anyway?

Steve Johnson tells us that an idea is not really a single thing. It’s a network.

Plus, these networks circulate. And they can improve in random collisions with other ideas.

Ideas are not like solid, isolated atoms. They’re more like a set of interacting molecules.

In other words, ideas are like fluids.

So the basic concept is this: you want to keep them flowing.

Let me give you three things I’ve learned to help you do that.

(A little hint first though: you don’t need to be at some fancy networking event to bounce ideas off people. You can learn something interesting by talking to almost any individual.)

1) LISTEN, AT 100%.

Seriously, press pause on the monologue running in your own head and really listen. Focus on exactly that one person you’re talking to at the time.

I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.

– Larry King Amazingly, I saw a fair number of people who didn’t do this. Miraculously, their phones and laptops had front row seats in their minds.

Don’t be like them.

Think of it this way: if you listen, you effectively gain control of the situation. As the conversation goes on, you’ll earn the right to steer back into your world, if you even need to.

Go ahead and practice this today, or this week. Find someone who’s got a different perspective than you do. (Hint: This could be someone you work with, yes. But it could even be that homeless person down the street that you’ve been ignoring.)

Get into a conversation with them and ask them an open-ended question about their views on something that seems to matter to them. Then be quiet and *listen*, 100%.

You never know what you might learn when you truly listen.


You might be out there trying to get your own ideas developed.

But the real joy lies in soaking up whatever interesting ideas are currently in circulation and then introducing them to others.

If you get an interesting reaction, maybe even make an introduction.

What do you get out of this? Real human connections, at the very least.

You’re fundamentally showing that you’re there to help, not to pitch.


When it comes to conversation, genuine beats fake. Every time.

So before you introduce your own ideas, make sure you stay relevant.

What reactions are you getting? What metaphors seem to spark in people’s minds when you describe your idea? What do people connect with it?

The more distant the connection, the better. Why? Low-hanging fruit. Adjacent connections aren’t likely to be fruitful.

Okay– all the above is on stepping out of your bubble and using other people’s minds to help you generate and develop ideas.

But what if you’re working on the wrong problem in the first place?

3) Questioning: How to Escape Prison By Asking the Wrong Questions

Riker: What I need is to get out of this cell. I’ve been locked in here, for days. You’ve controlled my every move.

You’ve told me what to eat, and what to think, and what to say, and then when I show a glimmer of independent thought, you strap me down! You inject me with drugs.

You call it a treatment!

Captor: You’re becoming agitated.

Riker: You bet I’m agitated! I may be surrounded by insanity, but I am not insane!

This is Commander Riker’s dilemma from Star Trek: TNG.

He’s struggling.

Why am I being punished for asking questions?

Could I be wrong about everything?

Is this for real?

At the end, he realizes it’s all an illusion.

He was right all along.

You and I face the same dilemma. Every day.

Because society is a drug.

They call it culture. They call it the normal and proper way of doing things.

And of course, the proper way is the best way. The honest way. The only way.

Well — they’re wrong.

Listen — you’re an entrepreneur.

Locked up somewhere in your mind is your greatest asset. A precious thing nobody can take from you.

Your individuality.

The personality that makes you unique.

Yet uniqueness is not easy to embrace. Matters not what kind of work you do. Most of the time, we’re content doing things others have done before.

All the more reason to steer out. To forge your own path.

Here’s how.


That’s right. You won’t chance upon The Final Question on your first go.

The thing about questions is you’re not just looking for their answers.

Your search is for more questions. Better, deeper, higher questions.

A powerful question calls into action all your mental assets.

In his book The Rainforest, Victor Hwang, CEO of T2VC and a key figure behind the Global Innovation Summit, states innovators should stand at the intersection of many diverse influences.

Richard Branson understood this when he founded Virgin Music. He bought an old castle and got diverse people in the entertainment industry to talk to each other.

A platform for developing questions.

Go where diverse people talk. Have the clear intention of leaving with version 3.0 of your initial question.


Yes, artificial. As in, created by a human – namely you.

Notice special cases. Focus in on them.

Specialization permits depth. Unnecessary details are killed off.

Instead of creating a full-fledged solution, see if you can get away with a skeleton product.

The key question behind PayPal used to be: can we build a digital currency, controlled by individuals? Then they noticed a special case: eBay users were avidly using their email payments system.

And the now-billion dollar unicorn changed its basic question to: how can we seamlessly transfer money between people?

That’s specialization.


The hardest and most rewarding part of questioning.

Consider again Commander Riker up there. He was agitated.

Your task is to sense that agitation inside yourself. The part of you that wants to ask ridiculous, forbidden or even rude questions.

You and I are fortunate. We live in a time where it’s okay – even encouraged – to do this. It wasn’t always so.

Scientists tend to be good at this.

Einstein’s genius was not in the mathematics. It was in the way he questioned nature.

He realized that the relation between space and time is a scientific, experimental question. Not a mathematical one.

An unexplored topic, at the time.

And then, essentially, *boom* — you get relativity. Questioning at its finest.

No doubt he sensed that agitation.

When you sense it in yourself, you must listen to it.

Act on it.

You’re the only one who can do that.

You owe it – not just to yourself – but to all of us.

Consider it your way of paying for all the things you were given for free in life.

You’re an individual.

4) Association: Connecting Ideas on an Empty Brain

You wanna innovate?

Then you need to master 5 skills.

That’s the short version of The Innovator’s DNA, written by Mr Innovation himself, Clayton Christensen.

Every entrepreneur should read it.

In case you’re coming in cold: so far we’ve covered observation, idea networking, and questioning.

Now for an exceptional one: association.

It’s simple: your goal is to uncover valuable, unexplored connections between ideas.

When the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, a bunch of scientists figured out how to determine its speed and orbit, based on its signal. Later, people wondered: can we do the inverse problem? Turn this on its head?

The result of that work is called GPS.

Key to this was Sputnik. Nobody guessed that.

Tremendous value can be unlocked by chasing the right association.

Best part? Association is an ancient concept. Time-tested.

Frequently consider the interconnection of all things.

– Marcus Aurelius Consider this. Right here, right now, you might be just one association away from a great discovery.

Even small improvements in this will pay off.

Exhaust all the obvious ideas. Then keep going.

This is a key point in Think Better by Tim Hurson. You must rid your mind of the obvious ideas to make space for valuable ones.

The Greeks called it kenosis. Self-emptying.

Makes sense, right? Valuable ideas are the high-hanging fruit. You have no space to pick them if your basket is full of low-hanging ones.

Here’s what you do.

Got a problem? Check.

Got lots of ideas on how to attack it? Check.

Then go make a list of them.

When you’re done, realize you’re not done. The whole point is to keep going.

Write down more ideas.

Yes, you will struggle. That’s how you know you might be on to something.

The key difficulty now is emotional labor.

As Seth Godin teaches us in What to do when it’s your turn, you want to stay with the tension.

You must develop curiosity as to what happens when you do.

Sharp curiosity is your best ammunition in this fight.

How much is it worth to you to release the tension, right now? What happens to your work if you’re able to wait a little longer?

– Seth Godin We’re nearly there.

The final innovator’s skill is not ancient, but it’s powerful. Modern.

It’s the capstone that finishes the pyramid.

5) Experimentation: All Your Answers Are Wrong

Entrepreneurs try things.

Sometimes they try learning things that have no relevant value.

Steve Jobs learned calligraphy. Turned out to be useful for the Mac.

Trying out new experiences is one aspect of the next innovator’s skill.

Siphoned directly from The Innovator’s DNA, our final one is experimentation.

Remember the other four?

Observation, Idea networking, Questioning, Association?

They all boil down to experimentation.

The idea is this: you want to avoid having to do random experiments to serve your customers.

Countless developers spend time and money making apps without any idea of their potential customer’s pain point, circumstances or even the kind of language they use.

That’s randomness at its finest. And waste at its worst.

The bottom line is that if you ask salient questions, observe salient situations, and talk to more diverse people, you will likely need to run fewer experiments.

– Clayton Christensen What’s experimentation all about?

Exposing yourself to new skills is one thing.

The Innovator’s DNA offers us two more points of guidance.


Experimentation exposes the internal details.

Surrounded by a confusing maelstrom of parts, the grimy engineer takes apart a car’s engine.

With a smile on his face.

That chaos opens the way for something new.

Hackathons and major tech conferences like Google I/O have a single unifying battle cry: let’s build stuff.

The point is to create something new. Creative, technical people get together and pick a technology (or an idea). Say, an app, or an API, or a piece of code that calculates your GPS position.

Then they take it apart, mess with the details and geek out… and voila! – you’ve got a new invention.

Does this create value for your customers every single time? Unlikely.

Could this create value? Definitely.

What can you take apart today?


You and I are standing in a dark room.

There is a switch in front of us.

Does it turn the light on?

How would we find out?

We could debate it. We could Google it. We could consult the goat entrails.

But obviously, the only way to know is by taking action.

For us, that means building prototypes. A manifestation of an idea. Hopefully, a lean one.

And sometimes, you need to break stuff to make space.

Henry Ford smashed the brick wall of his rented garage.

Why? Ostensibly to make room for the first gas-powered car.

But in reality, he made room for the Model T.

If I’ve learned one thing in my time at the Global Innovation Summit, it’s that it’s okay to break rules.

And so, it’s okay to be clueless.

Near the end, I was working with my friend Amy Ng on a problem that had no clear solution.

There was little time.

I had no idea what to do.

Just in passing, she said something I’ll never forget:

“There are no right answers.”

It dawned on me.

That is the nature of work that matters.

Harry is the founder and CEO of Infyrno, a startup that's laser-focused on accelerating innovation through technology. He's fanatical about learning, questioning things and most of all, taking action. Always wears a red shirt. Connect with him on Twitter.

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