I have been reading a book called The Innovators DNA, and I find myself thinking about how the concepts related to innovation described in this book apply to student affairs. The book’s premise centers around the idea that innovative leaders lead innovative organizations. The book talks about delivery (questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting) and discovery skills (analyzing, planning, detail-oriented implementing, and disciplined executing) used by leaders to find new ideas and convert them to tangible solutions and products. While these discovery skills may be through genetics, they can also be learned by understanding and practicing them.  Innovative leaders, they found to possess more discovery skills, while other leaders (professional managers) have more delivery skills. Dyer, Gregersen, & Christensen (2011), when they interviewed high-level executives, found:

“In contrast to innovators who seek to fundamentally change existing business models, products, or processes, most senior executives work hard to efficiently deliver the next thing that should be done given the existing business model. That is, they work inside the box. They shine at converting a vision or goal into specific tasks to achieve the defined goal. They organize work and conscientiously execute logical, detailed,data-driven action plans.” (p. 31)

This passage also notes the difference between innovators and managers.

“The key point here is that large companies typically fail at disruptive innovation because the top management team is dominated by individuals who have been selected for delivery skills, not discovery skills. As a result, most executives at large organizations don’t know how to think differently. It isn’t something they learn within their company, and it certainly isn’t taught in business school. Business schools teach people how to be deliverers, not discoverers.” (p. 36)

 In contrast to the professional managers as described above,  Dyer, et al. (2011) note that disruptive innovators are motivated by these two common themes, “First, they actively desire to change the status quo. Second, they regularly take smart risks to make that change happen.” (p. 24) In addition,  innovative leaders, like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) look to hire those with similar attributes they possess. They build their companies by hiring innovative people, establishing processes that promote innovation (experimentation), and having guiding philosophies that support a culture that encourages employees to try new ideas. These philosophies include 1) innovation is everyone’s job, 2) disruptive innovation is part of our innovation portfolio, 3) deploying lots of small, properly organized innovation project teams, and 4) taking smart risks in pursuing innovation. According to the book, these four guiding philosophies reflect the courage-to-innovate attitudes of innovative leaders.

While Dyer, et al. (2011) focus on disruptive innovators/companies and discovery skills, they do see the value of companies having teams that include members who have delivery skills. Ideally, these teams should consist of members with complementary discovery and delivery skills and those with business, technical, and “human factors” (behavioral sciences) expertise. Collectively, they should be able to view problems from multiple perspectives.

Reading this book with the themes described above led me to the following questions:

– Are student affairs graduate programs designed to prepare future professionals to be “deliverers” and not “discoverers”?

– Is student affairs designed to work within established boundaries (mandates, legal requirements, guidelines, etc.) and within “inside the box”? What are the incentives/punishments for going “outside the box”?

– Are SSAOs more focused on delivery than discovery, and do they hire people with the same philosophies?

– Are the guiding philosophies in student affairs like/unlike those mentioned above regarding innovation?

– Are student affairs professionals generally more “deliverers” than “discoverers”?

What is your take on this topic? Do you agree with the premise of the book?


Christensen, Clayton M.; Jeff Dyer; Hal Gregersen (2011-07-12). The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.