Ever wonder how Michael Dell came up with the idea to create his own computer company? Or how Pierre Omidyar dreamed up the online marketplace eBay? Or how Jeff Bezos came up with the bold moves needed to develop Amazon.com into one of America's most successful companies?
After more than six years of research, Brigham Young University professor Jeff Dyer is convinced that these visionary business leaders and others didn't start out completely hard-wired for creativity and innovation.
"I always thought creativity was genetic -- that some people have it, some people don't, and there's not much you can do to get better at it," Dyer said.
But Dyer thinks differently now. The key qualities that separate great leaders from not-so-great ones can be developed, he and his colleagues contend in "The Innovator's DNA."
Dyer, along with co-authors Hal B. Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen of Harvard Business School, surveyed more than 3,000 executives and managers who had not started a business or invented a product. Their responses were compared with about 500 business people -- such as Dell, Omidyar and Bezos -- who are widely recognized for their creative achievements in entrepreneurship and invention.
One key characteristic among the visionaries? The tendency to ask questions -- a lot of them -- and to challenge the status quo -- plenty.
Dyer said by comparison, most executives and managers in corporate America today focus on making companies run smoothly and efficiently.
Yet based on their research published in the Harvard Business Review , the most effective leaders "are much more likely to ask 'What if' questions, such as, 'What would happen if we do this?' They ask things like, 'What if we try doing things a new way, how will it change the world?'"
Michael Dell, for example, told Dyer and his colleagues the idea for creating a computer company sprang from a simple question: Why does an assembled computer costs five times as much as the parts that went into it?
Dyer recommends that business leaders spend at least 15 minutes to 30 minutes per day jotting down questions that "challenge the status quo" in their companies, or in their industry, or in their lives.
Bezos, of Amazon.com, told researchers that questioning and experimentation are so critical to innovation that he has institutionalized it at his company.
"I encourage our employees to go down blind alleys and experiment," Bezos said. "If we can get processes decentralized so that we can do a lot of experiments without it being very costly, we'll get a lot more innovation."
Visionary leaders also are good at studying how other people -- and companies -- do things. Dyer said such leaders also are more likely than non-visionaries to have lived in more than one country for an extended period of time. He believes the two qualities are related.
"When people live in different countries, they are more likely to carefully observe what's going on," Dyer said. "It seems to broaden their experiences, and they become more attuned to observing their environments and talking to people with different backgrounds and points of view."
But Dyer said no long journey is required to capitalize on the powers of observation.
Intuit founder Scott Cook said he came up with the idea for Quicken financial software simply by watching his wife struggle to find a way to effectively manage the family's finances.
Dyer said observing how customers and potential customers use a company's product or service can prove particularly useful.
Aside from questioning and observing, visionary leaders also are good at networking, Dyer said. But not for the reasons you might think.
They use networking as a way to gain access to find -- and get feedback for -- new ideas. They observe what others are doing and question whether it would benefit them to follow suit. "They don't use networking just as a tool to mobilize resources or promote themselves," he said. "It's a totally different focus on networking to find and test ideas."
Rex Falkenrath, director of the Miller Business Innovation Center in Salt Lake City, said he agrees with most of the points raised in the research. But he questions one key assertion, that two-thirds of a person's ability to innovate is learned and the other one-third is tied to how the person is hard-wired.
"It is just the opposite," argued Falkenrath, who has started and run businesses, and advised other entrepreneurs . He believes the brains of innovators "simply work differently."
Their ability to visualize concepts, their persistence, their risk-taking and their comfort in disrupting the status quo all are innate, he believes. "The super-innovators are actually different; Their minds work in ways that others don't."