Is there a sketch of the successful innovator?

The characteristics of innovative individuals

Research by Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Chistensen published in 2010 has led to the identification of five 'discoverer skills' that distinguish the most creative people in business contexts. We talk about the DNA of the innovator. The question we must ask ourselves is: are innovators born or do they become innovators?


It is the ability to make associations allows one to effectively relate seemingly unconnected questions, problems or ideas, and is fundamental to the innovator's DNA. 

Everyone happens to access a range of information, be exposed to stimuli and observe. In these activities, our brain acquires information, such as fixed points that can be connected with different relationships between them and it is our ability to connect and associate that gives rise to a more or less defined image/design. Everyone, in making associations, generates their own design, their own mind map. 

This phenomenon is called the 'Medici effect', referring to the creative explosion that occurred in Florence when the Medici family brought together exponents from a wide range of disciplines - sculptors, scientists, poets, philosophers, painters and architects. Through their interactions, new ideas flourished at the intersections of their respective fields, thus giving rise to the Renaissance, one of the most inventive eras in history.

Take home: expose yourself to diversity!


More than fifty years ago, Peter Drucker (influential management essayist and writer) described the effectiveness of provocative questions

"The important and difficult thing is never to find the right answersis to find the right question'., he wrote. 

Innovators constantly ask themselves questions that question traditional logic and the status quo. Innovative entrepreneurs, on the other hand, are much more willing to question assumptions. 

In his book The Opposable MindRoger Martin writes that innovative thinkers "have the ability to conceive two diametrically opposed ideas." And he explains: "Without panicking, nor focusing on one alternative or another, they are able to produce a synthesis that is superior to both opposing ideas“.

Having threats/constraints is a source of innovation! The most fruitful questions impose constraints on our thinking and act as catalysts for original ideas. Necessity or constraints sharpen ingenuity!

Asking oneself or others to imagine a completely different alternative can lead to truly original insights.

Questions to ask: What would happen if we were prohibited by law from serving our current customers? How would we make a profit next year? What would you do if you had not already hired this person, installed this machine, implemented this process, acquired this company or pursued this strategy? Would you do the same thing you are doing today?

Take home: ask questions of yourself and others, question without assuming!


The 40% of new ideas in a company comes from outside, not from within. Observe what others do not only in your business but also what others do outside, in other contexts - look outside your own garden - observe your own customerstheir own suppliers and their own competitors

Innovators go carefully, intentionally and consistently looking for small behavioural details - in the activities of customers, suppliers and other companies - to get insights into new ways of doing things.

Observers experiment with all possible techniques to try to see the world in a different light. Akio Toyoda, president of the Toyota Motor Corportation, regularly applies the philosophy of the genchi genbutsu - go and see for yourself on site - which Toyota is inspired by. Direct observation is structurally part of the culture of the large Japanese car manufacturer.

Asking is not enough. One must observe. Henry Ford says: "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, their answer would have been: faster horses'.

Take home: osservate i clienti e ipotizzate nuovi modi di creare valore per i clienti partendo dalla osservazione dei loro comportamenti. Osservate i fornitori perché possono farvi venire delle idee! Osservate i concorrenti perché possono ispirarvi!


Edison, noto imprenditore e inventore americano (sempre l’inventore della lampadina), disse: Non ho fallito. Ho solo trovato diecimila soluzioni che non funzionano.
Il mondo comincia e finisce con il loro laboratorio. Attraverso la sperimentazione si sviluppa il learning by doing.

Diversamente dagli osservatori, che studiano intensamente il mondo, gli sperimentatori costruiscono esperienze interattive e tentano di provocare reazioni eterodosse per capire quali indicazioni possono emergere.

C’è un detto cinese che sottolinea l’importanza del fare e dello sperimentare: Dimentico quello che sento – ricordo quello che vedo – capisco quello che faccio.
L’importanza del fare, praticare, sperimentare, sbagliare!

Take home: non vi negate la possibilità di provare, sperimentare e fallire – si impara attraverso il fallimento!


Se le innovazioni arrivano dall’esterno allora è importante creare canali attraverso i quali far fluire nuove idee, risorse, etc. 

Dedicare tempo ed energie allo sviluppo e alla sperimentazione delle idee attraverso un network di persone provenienti da ambiti eterogenei, dà agli innovatori una prospettiva completamente diversa. Il network deve comprendere relazioni frequenti e strutturate (strong ties) e relazioni spot, vari, diversificate (weak ties). 

Gli imprenditori innovativi vogliono incontrare persone portatrici di idee e prospettive diverse, allo scopo di ampliare le proprie conoscenze. 

Take home: apriamoci alla diversità e coltiviamo non solo relazioni consolidate, ma anche relazioni nuove, spot, uscendo fuori dai ‘terreni battuti’ per esplorare nuovi percorsi! 

How to help people innovate?

Le imprese innovative mettono i propri dipendenti nelle condizioni di:

  1. Fare osservazioni
  2. Fare associazioni
  3. Fare domande e mettersi in discussione
  4. Fare rete e attivare relazioni
  5. Fare sperimentazioni 

Se vogliamo avere persone con queste caratteristiche dobbiamo:

  • Fare attenzione alla selezione delle persone, oltre alla competenza verticale specialistica, servono queste cinque skills.
  • Creare condizioni interne perché questo accada. 

Investire nella formazione e apertura della forma mentis anche con aggiornamento continuo delle competenze (up-skilling e re-skilling).
La capacità innovativa dell’individuo non è una predisposizione genetica, è il frutto di un impegno attivo. Lo slogan della Apple, Think Different, è suggestivo ma incompleto. 
Per pensare in modo diverso gli innovatori devono agire in modo diverso.Comprendendo, rinforzando e istituzionalizzando il DNA of the innovator le aziende possono trovare il modo di innescare più efficacemente la scintilla creativa in tutti i collaboratori.

Bibliographic references

  • Dyer, J., Gregersen, H.B and Christensen. C.M. The Innovator’s DNA. Harvard Business Review 
  • Pisano G. 2019. The hard truth about innovative cultures. Harvard Business Review 
  • Mazzucato, M. 2014. Lo stato innovatore. Editori Laterza 
  • Shilling, M. 2017. Gestione dell’Innovazione, McGraw-Hill
  • Sobrero, M. 1999. La gestione dell’innovazione: strategia, organizzazione e tecniche operative. Carocci 
  • Sorensen, J.B e Fassiotto M.A. 2011. Organizations as fonts of entrepreneurship. Organization Science 22 (5)
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