Some Work of Noble Note

May Yet Be Done

The Innovator’s DNA

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Professor Clay Christensen rocked the world with The Innovator’s Dilemma back in 1997.  JMI’s summer reading list for all new associates includes that book and after finishing it, I immediately realized how important it was to think about “disruption” according to Prof. Christensen’s mindset.  Disruptive innovations aren’t immediately better on all fronts, but instead, embrace seemingly fatal flaws in order to access a much broader market; over time, technology improvements eliminate those flaws but the product still has its massive market to reach.  The iPad, for example, is disruptive since it sacrificed processing power, typing ease, and a million other laptop features all to enable casual accessibility.  It didn’t matter that it was technologically inferior to laptops, people found new use cases for it and its addressable market expanded dramatically.  The Innovator’s Dilemma has become a cottage industry of sorts; Prof. Christensen has talked about it in the healthcare and education contexts (Disrupting Class) and has even founded a namesake institution for Disruptive Innovation.

Like the word “genius,” “disruptive” is an overused word.  Disruptive innovation doesn’t come from merely improving products; instead it takes a specific bent of mind to choose the right functionality sacrifices to build a product that is “good enough” on those losses but that blows a market wide open with new features.  It’s simple enough to call that unconventional thinking and leave it at that.  In a 2009 HBR article, Prof. Christensen dug further, not just compiling a list of great unconventional thinkers – innovators – but also asking what traits do great innovators share, and how do you encourage innovative thinking in yourself or in organizations? (The article is behind the paywall but just buy it – it’ll be the best $7 or so that you’ll spend today.)

Prof. Christensen’s key takeaway is that all innovators share an ability to pattern match (or “associate”).  They draw connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and through those connections see pathways to disruptive innovation.  Supporting this key ability like nucleotides building the double-helix DNA strand are four traits: Questioning, Observing, Experimenting, and Networking.  All innovators, in Prof. Christensen’s research, possess these qualities, though some are more dominant, others less so in each of them.

Associating or pattern matching is something I’ve been harping on for a while.  Innovation, or new improvements, by definition, come from viewing the world in a different way.  (If you viewed the world only as it currently is, you’d never know what’s worth changing.)  That’s a great thought in the abstract, but you can’t rely on one-off flash insights to show up every time you need them.  To provide some means of replicating your ability to think unconventionally over time – some structure you can always leverage to build insights – you have to build the pattern matching skill.

Prof. Christensen provides the example of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.  Omidyar conceived of eBay after connecting three disparate ideas: (1) a fascination with creating more-efficient markets, after having been shut out from a hot internet company’s IPO in the mid-1990s; (2) his fiancée’s desire to locate hard-to-find collectible Pez dispensers; and (3) the ineffectiveness of local classified ads in locating such items.

I’ll think about Mark Zuckerberg in a similar manner, admittedly based just on the literature available on Facebook’s founding.  The psychoanalyst in me says it arose from Zuckerberg’s associating (1) a desire to follow/”creep on” classmates arising out of FaceMash’s voyeurism (what we would now call “Facebook stalking”); (2) a desire to connect people similar to the Winklevoss’ ConnectU and imitate the Finals Club social liquidity to which he aspired; and (3) an eagerness to take advantage of what the internet offered.  Those three associates led to a massively disruptive new social networking platform.  How was it disruptive?  It helped people connect with each other but its first interpersonal communication tool was the Wall, inferior to email, instant messaging, and the nascent text messaging business.  But Facebook created a brand new use case, it built a new market for itself despite that weakness, and in its subsequent decade, used technology advances to overcome those deficiencies.

Pattern matching made Facebook and eBay possible as with countless other disruptive innovations.  In service of this grand pattern matching skill, innovators have at their disposal four traits which they manifest in different levels: Questioning, Observing, Experimenting, and Networking (which is really “networking to learn” because it’s not about glad-handing, it’s about meeting people for the sole purpose of learning about their disparate disciplines).  There’s not much to add to those traits – they’re fairly self-explanatory.  What’s worth noting is the article’s conclusion that “innovative entrepreneurship is not a genetic predisposition, it is an active endeavor.”  You not only can encourage innovative thinking, you actively have to encourage it to get results.

(Schools are naturally quite well set up to do this and my general understanding of global education practices (combined with what I remember about my time in India) would suggest that American schools are significantly more focused on encouraging pattern matching.  We may not get great test scores and we may be producing worse readers and engineers relative to 20+ other countries, but our schools are set up to encourage Questioning, Observing, and Experimenting.  That focus away from outcomes may even be why we’re good at creating entrepreneurs and not worker bees.)


Steve Jobs, oddly not profiled, had a well-known appreciation for Eastern philosophies and their focus on simplicity over ostentation.  It’s ironic that Macs and iP-anythings represent consumerism and aspirational branding, but it all arose from how gorgeous these products look and how elegantly they’re used.  Where Microsoft and other tablet / phone manufacturers seemed to be competing to build a device that looked most likely to turn into a Transformer, Apple’s single button iPod and the iPad felt like it could solve all our personal problems.  Jobs pattern matched.  Here’s part of Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece on Jobs soon after his passing:

In the eulogies that followed Jobs’s death, last month, he was repeatedly referred to as a large-scale visionary and inventor. But Isaacson’s biography suggests that he was much more of a tweaker. He borrowed the characteristic features of the Macintosh—the mouse and the icons on the screen—from the engineers at Xerox parc, after his famous visit there, in 1979. The first portable digital music players came out in 1996. Apple introduced the iPod, in 2001, because Jobs looked at the existing music players on the market and concluded that they “truly sucked.” Smart phones started coming out in the nineteen-nineties. Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, more than a decade later, because, Isaacson writes, “he had noticed something odd about the cell phones on the market: They all stank, just like portable music players used to.” The idea for the iPad came from an engineer at Microsoft, who was married to a friend of the Jobs family, and who invited Jobs to his fiftieth-birthday party.

Gladwell’s piece wants us to think about Jobs not as a great inventor but as a perfectionist tinkerer.  Jobs, after all, wasn’t an engineer but a product visionary; he wouldn’t have been capable of building faster processors or more powerful graphics cards.  Gladwell is right – Jobs’ brilliance was in tinkering products to perfection; but as Gladwell points out, all these tweaks that Jobs made were borrowing ideas from other contexts, or pattern matching.

Author: AJ

I'm an education enthusiast, growth equity investor, and MBA student at Wharton.

One thought on “The Innovator’s DNA

  1. Pingback: Aaron Levie’s Education Thoughts | Some Work of Noble Note

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