Why I Don’t Like the Term “Innovator’s DNA”

And just as each person’s physical DNA is unique, each individual we studied had a unique innovator’s DNA for generating breakthrough business ideas.”

This is a line from the influential HBR article written by Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and the late Clayton Christensen back in 2009. The inspiring image created by article has gone viral, and the term “innovator’s DNA” has become an innovation management buzzword. Google “innovation is in our DNA” and you would be surprised how many people and organizations have more than just adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine in their DNA.

Sure, I know that every popular business term immediately becomes a powerful magnet for clichés. Innovation is hardly an exception, and yet I think that mixing innovation with DNA is a bad idea and that “innovator’s DNA” is an awkward term.

To begin with, ascribing innovative (or any other) abilities of a person to her DNA implies that DNA is the sole determinant of who this person is. This simply is not true: our features are the result of a combined action of two major factors: our genetic material (represented by DNA) and our environment.

The relative importance of each factor varies for a particular feature. For example, the color of our eyes or the curliness of our hair are almost exclusively determined by our DNA. But other features, such as our behavior or predisposition to diseases, are greatly influenced by external factors, such as a lifestyle. A general rule is that the more complex the human trait, the more it is influenced by environmental factors.

There is, therefore, every reason to believe that our ability to innovate, a complex cognitive and behavioral feature, is predominantly determined by our environment. You’re an innovator not because you were born with innovator’s DNA. You’re an innovator because you’ve been exposed to innovation environment.

Second, it is 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. It is also fair to say that innovation is about trying and failing. The only other cliché that comes close in popularity to innovator’s DNA is our obsession with failures (which we love to celebrate but hate to commit). 

At the same time, by virtue of it being the guardian of our genetic code, DNA is extremely stable molecule. Do you know that there are only 0.3 errors produced every time the whole human genome is reproduced – and the human genome consists of more than 3 billion elements? Sure, I can see why holders of Six Sigma Black Belts would worship DNA, but I do feel that innovation practitioners should be looking for inspiration somewhere else.

By the way, my sincere congratulations to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for winning this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for CRISP gene editing tool. You are true innovators, ladies! And you work with DNA.

Check out my eBook, “We the People of the Crowd…,” a collection of stories about crowdsourcing reflecting my personal experience in working with corporate and nonprofit clients.

Image credit: https://innovationdistrict.childrensnational.org/decoding-cellular-signals-linked-to-hypospadias/

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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