Can Innovation Skills Be Learned?

Creating Innovators

Tomorrow, April 17th, marks the release of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World by author Tony Wagner.  Please watch for upcoming Interview with the author and also a Video Presentation from collaborator-filmmaker Robert A. Compton on this site. Book Excerpt —

I am struck by the interrelationship and overlap between lists of skills identified in the two articles quoted above and what Google looks for in its employees. The “DNA” of innovators might be considered a set of skills that are essential elements in design thinking. One cannot have empathy without having practiced the skills of listening and observing. And integrative thinking begins with the ability to ask good questions and to make associations. There is also a kinship between collaboration and networking. And what all three lists have in common is the importance of experimenting — an activity that, at its root, requires a kind of optimism, a belief that through trial and error a deeper understanding and better approaches can be discovered.

Putting the research together, some of the most essential qualities of a successful innovator appear to be the following:

  • curiosity, which is a habit of asking good questions and a desire to understand more deeply
  • collaboration, which begins with listening to and learning from others who have perspectives and expertise that are very different from your own
  • associative or integrative thinking
  • a bias toward action and experimentation

But as an educator and a parent what I find most significant in this list is that they represent a set of skills and habits of mind that can be nur­tured, taught, and mentored! Many of us tend to assume that some people are born naturally creative or innovative — and others are not. But all of the experts whom I’ve cited share the belief that most people can become more creative and innovative — given the right environment and opportunities. Indeed, Judy Gilbert’s job is to continue to develop the capacities of Google employees to become more innovative.

Tim Brown writes, “Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t need weird shoes or a black turtleneck to be a design thinker. Nor are design thinkers necessarily created only by design schools, even though most professionals have had some kind of design training. My experience is that many people outside professional design have a natural aptitude for design thinking, which the right development and experiences can unlock”

Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen agree. In the conclusion of their article, the authors argue, “Innovative entrepreneurship is not a genetic predisposition, it is an active endeavor. Apple’s slogan ‘Think Different’ is inspiring but incomplete. We found that innovators must consistently act different to think different. By understanding, reinforcing, and modeling the innovator’s DNA, companies can find ways to more successfully develop the creative spark in everyone.”

So DNA, then, turns out not to be the right term, after all. It’s not primarily what you are born with that makes you an innovator — though clearly some people are born with extraordinary gifts. These authors seem to agree that what you have learned to do is more essential. Yes, there’s nature — but there is also nurture, what the environments around us encourage and teach.

But here’s the problem: It is often difficult in our society to “act differently in order to think differently.” To do so requires radically altering our adult behaviors. When Dyer and Gregersen were interviewed in a blog about their research, Hal Gregersen talked about the loss of creative capacity. “If you look at 4-year-olds, they are constantly asking questions and wondering how things work. But by the time they are 6½ years old they stop asking questions because they quickly learn that teachers value the right answers more than provocative questions. High school students rarely show inquisitiveness. And by the time they’re grown up and are in corpo­rate settings, they have already had the curiosity drummed out of them. 80% of executives spend less than 20% of their time on discovering new ideas. Unless, of course, they work for a company like Apple or Google”

Gregersen is hardly alone in his views. Sir Ken Robinson’s recent book, The Element, and his TED Talks describe many of the ways curiosity and creativity are discouraged — “educated out of us,” he often says. Dr. Robert Sternberg, a psychologist who has studied creativity, agrees. He writes, “Creativity is a habit. The problem is that schools sometimes treat it as a bad habit . . . Like any habit, creativity can either be encouraged or discouraged.”

Note: The above is an excerpt from the book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World by Tony Wagner. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy. Copyright © 2012 Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World

image credit: Scribner 2012 (a division of Simon & Schuster)

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Creating InnovatorsTony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, is the first innovation education fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard and the founder of the Change Leadership Group, Harvard Graduate School of Education. Wagner consults to public and independent schools and foundations, has served as senior advisor to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and is a speaker and the author of four books.

For more information about the book please visit, and follow on Facebook and Twitter

Creating InnovatorsRobert A. Compton (video collaboration) has produced eight feature-length documentary films on global education and innovation, including Two Million Minutes, Win in China, and The Finland Phenomenon. Prior to filmmaking, Compton had a successful twenty-five-year career as a venture capital investor and high-tech entrepreneur.

Tony Wagner




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No Comments

  1. JF CANTIN on April 27, 2012 at 7:04 am


    We have in Québec a big student uprising against University Fees.
    my father says that we pay the lowers university fees in the world & student here shouldn’t complain,he has a point.
    But in this new globalist-Sino-production monopole world, I have the feeling ,and the Japanese Government have the same perspective, that the only way we can survive the Sino giant, is by inventing non reproducible technology that they will need and bye.. and where is research done, of course we Know. so should every occidental country put a major economic effort on Education in the shadows of the Sino Dragon ?

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