Innovator's DNA

Author: Mason C., Inflow Technical Writer

“Young man! When I say clean your room, I mean clean it NOW!”

“Why?” A common response, at the time, for a four-year-old me to my mother’s command.

“Because I said so!” An equally common response to my inquiry. Now, whether it was because that reasoning was sufficient for my curious mind or that I knew there would be DIRE consequences for disobeying my mother, I would ultimately comply.

To be fair, I wasn’t really interested as to why I had to do it – I just wanted to annoy my mother – but the point is I took her “reasoning” on merit. I didn’t question her further. I didn’t ask if there was a better method of cleaning the room, or if there was a way to prevent a room from even getting dirty in the first place. To my knowledge, rooms got messy and then you have to clean them. That’s the cycle of life. “That’s just how it is.”

Is it, though? How many of us actually pause to evaluate whether what we’re doing is the most effective way? How many of us, instead, “do” because it’s “what’s been done?” Look at history, and even our present day, and you’ll see people like Gandhi, whose revolutionary and peaceful ideals began to transform and break down the social barriers in India; Steve Jobs, whose innovations within portable audio players not only changed the way in which we listen to music but also how we purchase it; or Larry Page and Sergey Brin who, together, have provided a means to access the world’s collective knowledge through Google.

Clearly these individuals were not satisfied by the status quo. If you look at each one of them (and many more throughout all industries) you’ll realize that each one has something in common – something that, because of this, has led them to develop products, services, or ideas that have revolutionized either their business market or even the world. They’re all Innovators.

This quarter, for our Inflow Book Club, we read “The Innovator’s DNA.” It’s the study on some of the world’s greatest innovators and the make-up of their proverbial DNA: Associating, Questioning, Observing, Networking, and Experimenting. Through this book, we discovered each of the five discovery skills, along with the techniques to implement and practice them each day in our work place.

The Five Discovery Skills: Questioning, Observing, Networking, Experimenting, and Associating

The Five Discovery Skills: Questioning, Observing, Networking, Experimenting, and Associating


Associating is the ability to make surprising connections across areas of knowledge, industries, and even geographies. It’s through the culmination of the other four skills that makes associating possible. The authors often refer to “T-shaped” individuals: those who hold a deep well of knowledge in one area but actively acquire knowledge across different subjects. An example of this is Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay. He was consulting for a company who was having issues getting fresh produce to the consumers (about 1/3 of it would spoil before reaching them). Omidyar asked, “What about the post office? Doesn’t the post office go to everybody’s house six times a week? Why don’t we just mail the head of lettuce?” He used his wellspring of knowledge of shipping from eBay and applied it to another industry – this is associating. Grant it, Omidyar did say that this was probably a bad idea, but it’s an example of using our knowledge from other industries and applying to the problem at hand.

Besides, we now have things like Amazon Pantry, Shipt, and Instacart, which allow me to do just that. I can buy all my groceries without ever going to the grocery store and have it show up at my front door.

Joe H., our Electrical Engineer had a great suggestion on increasing our ability to associate:


Whereas association is the culmination of the other four discovery skills, questioning is the creative catalyst that instigates the innovative process; it challenges the status quo and is the key to generating powerful solutions.

As children, we seem to question everything. As we grow, however, whether it’s because we become afraid of looking dumb or that, through school, we’re always expected to have an answer, we seem to stop asking questions and instead are content with the way things are. Emily B., our Human Interest Manager, brought up a good point about our industry in particular:

That’s not just the Government Contracting industry either – there is a serious lack of questioning throughout all industries and even in our daily lives. To be fair, we’re creatures of habit; we get in our routines, are taught to do things in a certain way, and we get comfortable in the status quo of society. Everything seems fine – optimal even – but without taking the time to start asking “why,” we can never break through our self-created walls and explore the unexplored. Elise H. and Nikho R., made comments in this regard:

Questioning is the creative catalyst from which all innovation begins to flow. Every successful innovator was able to create something new because they, as Ratan Tata (creator of the cheapest car, the Tata Nano) stated, they “Question[ed] the unquestionable.”


Déjà vu. We’ve all experienced this sensation before – the sensation that we’ve done the very thing before – but Déjà vu is always passive. It just happens without you actively seeking it. Vuja de, on the other hand, is the opposite – it’s the sensation of seeing something for the first time, despite having seen it many times before. Vuja de is an action. You can’t come across it by accident, you have to be observing: watching, intently, the world around you.

Ratan Tata, chairman at Ratan Group, experienced this feeling one rainy day in India. He had seen families riding scooters all throughout his life, but on this particular day, his heart sank as he watched a father and his family riding, his eldest son standing behind the handlebars, his wife sitting sidesaddle behind him, holding a younger child in her lap, soaked by the rain. Ratan Tata asked himself, “Why can’t this family own a car and avoid the rain?” Because of this experience, he then developed the cheapest car in the world, providing safer transportation for the middle class of India. Without this experience, the car would simply not exist.

But it requires actively looking. Peter Leschak wrote once, “All of us are watchers – of television, of time clocks, of traffic on the freeway – but few are observers. Everyone is looking, not many are seeing.” The point is, there is inspiration all around us: new ideas, new experiences, new sights. All we have to do is start watching it all and innovation will follow suit.


If you’re in a professional field, you know what networking is. What you probably don’t know is that there are two types of networking: Delivery-Driven Networking and Discovery-Driven Networking. Delivery-driven networking is what you and I do, typically. We seek out those who are like us or in influential positions in order to access resources, sell ourselves or the company, and further our career. A Discovery-driven networker, on the other hand, seeks people who are diverse, with different backgrounds, in order to learn new, surprising things, gain different perspectives, and test ideas.

What’s so powerful about this type of networking is the ability to expand our understanding into realms we’ve previously knew little about or nothing at all. The pooled wealth of mankind’s knowledge is immense – people have experienced things, overcome struggles, laughed and cried, spent years in study or honing their craft – by tapping into their pool of knowledge, you grow your own and gain valuable insight into another person’s world.

A practical takeaway from “idea” networking is when you’re faced with a problem, ask yourself, “Who else has faced a problem like this before?” Then go talk to them. Another person’s experience could very well be your solution.


While the other four discover skills are good for gathering information about the past and present, experimenting is what provides you with the data of what might work best in the future. There are several types of experimenting:

  • Exploration: the trying of new experiences despite their being little to no direct connection between the activity and the deliverable at hand.
  • Deconstruction: the taking apart of products, processes, and ideas to better understand how they work, often leading to new ideas for how things might work better.
  • Prototyping: the testing of a product or idea through a short run pilot or small scale prototype to gain valuable data that aids in better understanding the marketability and potential shortcomings of the product.

 It all comes down to taking risks. As the Mythbusters religiously say, “Failure is always an option,” and with experimenting, failure is, in fact, an inevitability. However, it comes down to what you do with that failure. So often, we look at failure as, well, just that: a failure; a waste of time. Instead, experimenting, and ultimately failure, shouldn’t been seen as mistakes, but rather opportunities to learn and apply that knowledge to the next experiment, because, as the author states, “experimenting is often the only way to generate the data required to ultimately achieve success.”


Each discovery skill is pertinent for an innovator’s success and plays a pivotal role in their “DNA”. This DNA, unlike our physical DNA, is not bound by genetics. Sure, some people are naturally more curious than others or have a knack to go out and experience new things or talk with different people, but when it comes to creativity, “nurture trumps nature as far as creativity goes.” These are skills that have to be actively exercised, or else they become weak.

But that’s the beauty of it. Innovation isn’t some guy being in the right place at the right time. It’s not about having some “gift” from birth or knowing the right people to get you into the doors we mortals dream about stepping through. No, innovation resides in all hands; it is only restricted by our willingness to explore, question, and then do.

Begin to explore your work place, observe your coworkers and customers, and question everything. If you come across something, a process or product, that could be improved, take the steps to do it. Yes, it’s scary – innovation is filled with uncertainty, but ask yourself, “If not me, who? If not now, when?”

“Care about something enough to do something about it.” – Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Inc. said. We possess the ability to change the world around us, whether that’s by affecting our immediate coworkers, improving the company as a whole, or, potentially, impacting the whole world. We won’t always know what to do, how to do it, or who to involve to make it happen, but perhaps the greatest piece of advice was offered by the founder of Skype, Niklas Zennström:

“Screw it, let’s do it.”

So let’s do it – let’s make the world a better place.


Learn more about "The Innovator's DNA" here.

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