3 reasons why “the innovator’s DNA” is an awkward term

imagesI already wrote that as every popular topic, innovation is a powerful magnet for clichés. Unfortunately, some of them are more obstructive than instructive. For example, I’m not sure that mixing innovation with DNA is a good idea. Sure, I can appreciate an inspiring symbolism of Jeff Dyer’s et al. definition of “the innovator’s DNA”–“…each individual…ha[s] a unique innovator’s DNA for generating breakthrough business ideas”–yet I find at least three reasons why “the innovator’s DNA” is an awkward term.

  1. DNA is not the sole determinant of who we are

Ascribing innovative abilities of any person to his or her DNA implies that DNA is the sole determinant of who this person is. This simply is not the case: our features are the result of a combined action of our genetic material (represented by DNA) and the environment. The relative importance of each varies for a particular feature. For example, the color of our eyes or the curliness of our hair is almost exclusively determined by our DNA, whereas other features, say, our predisposition to diseases, are greatly influenced by “external” factors, such as a life style.

A general rule is that the more complex the human trait, the more it’s influenced by environmental factors. There is therefore every reason to believe that our ability to innovate, a complex cognitive feature, is predominantly determined by the environment. You are innovator not because you were born with “the innovator’s DNA”; you are innovator become you’ve been exposed to “the innovator’s environment.”

  1. Innovation is a change, whereas DNA is a symbol of stability

It’s fair to say that innovation is about change. Innovators must rapidly respond to changing business conditions, promptly adapt to shifting consumer preferences and closely follow technology developments. At the same time, DNA is extremely stable molecule: there are only 0.3 errors produced every time the whole human genome is reproduced. I definitely can see why Six Sigma Black Belts would worship DNA, but innovation practitioners should be looking for inspiration somewhere else.

  1. Misleading terms are prone to abuse

Once again, I can feel certain elegance in the claim that every innovator is unique, but linking this uniqueness to DNA is an invitation to abuse. For example, I cannot help but cringe when I read that “successful innovation programs have a DNA consisting of seven elements.” Ouch, these days even kids with iPads know that DNA consists of only four elements!

Image credit: http://archive.constantcontact.com

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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