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The Innovation Genome

The Innovation Genome

Several readers have asked me to describe the fundamental tenets of the Innovation Genome™ which underlies my work in developing innovation strategies, practices, competencies and culture in large multinational corporations. What follows is a most basic description of how it works.

An Integral and Systemic Map of Innovation

The Innovation Genome™ is typically used to synchronize the vast horizontal functions of complex organizations across boundaries of all types: Regions, functions and disciplines to name a few. This is essential because innovation is basically a horizontal value proposition – it happens everywhere, everyday with everyone. So this approach is far more than a simple typing indicator – “I’m an ENTP and you’re an ISFJ.” It’s more akin to investment strategies where your type matters less than the conditions that the market is now favoring – bull market traders don’t fare well in bear markets. It’s the situation in which value is created or destroyed that largely determines the success or failure of an innovation strategy and its associated practices. The Innovation Genome is used to diagnose corporate culture and competency as well as predict the potential shareholder value derived from purposeful changes to them.

Simply put, the Innovation Genome™ is a map – a meta-model upon which a wide variation of innovation approaches can be compared and evaluated.

The Innovation Genome™ has two basic structural components.

The 3 Levels of Innovation

First, the Innovation Genome functions across three levels. These are:

  1. Purposes – Outcomes, or the value the organization intends to create
  2. Practices – Culture, competency, and processes of the organization
  3. Personal – You, a leader, an individual

These three levels are inter-related. Think of them like Russian nesting dolls. Each level is subsumed by the greater level. To assume that any level can create value without the one above or below is perilous. Opportunities and challenges are ignored and the capabilities and culture required to capture or avoid are miscalculated. Ironically, our research suggests that while there are clear connections between outcomes and the organizational culture and capability required to capture them, leaders typically favor innovation practices that closely resemble their own preferences and therefore actually may destroy growth. In other words, we prefer the tools, methods, and people who are more like us over those that will help us innovate.

The 4 Fundamental Creative Forces

Second, there are four fundamental creative forces that produce innovation by pulling us, our communities, the imperceptible zeitgeist and all the constituents in our situations in different directions: CollaborateCreateCompete and Control. These forces drive or thwart innovation in dyadic oppositions: Collaborate versus Compete, and Create versus Control.

The Collaborate approach moves towards connection, harmony and togetherness. This approach represents human relationships, the identification with family and clan, and the greater good of Man. The Collaborate approach is typically associated with the slowest forms of innovation because it focuses on building the underlying organizational culture and competencies required to sustain it.

The Compete approach, the opposite of Collaborate, represents a Darwinist approach that focuses on competition where the strong prevail at the expense of the weak. This approach represents the drive toward goals and the end game of power, money, fame and other tangible forms of success. Contained within is a rational view of the world as divided between winners and losers. This form of innovation is the fastest of all four, but is not typically sustainable because its “sweat shop” approach gives little concern to the development of others.

The Create approach pursues radical innovation through wild experimentation and extreme dislocation of conventions. Often this form of innovation is event-driven by an unconventional breakthrough, such as a miracle drug, or a cataclysmic event, such as an act of terrorism or a natural catastrophe. The incident is so extreme that a traditional response would be untenable. Evolutionary biology refers to this total displacement of convention as “punctuated equilibrium” meaning the revolutionary moment when the trajectory of innovation is irrevocably altered. This Create approach burns bridges behind it. While this approach provides the greatest magnitude of innovation, it also brings the greatest risk.

While Create represents the radical approach for innovation, Control brings up the rear focusing on continuity and the elimination of errors and outliers. The Control approach represents incremental innovation – taking something that exists and modifying it to make it better. In this view there is a right and wrong way governed by the irrefutable laws of science and civility. Interpretations are of little significance in the face of rules and standards. Data wins the day. This approach is closely associated with technology, systems, and engineering employed to streamline complexity and increase efficiency and quality. This methodical march of progress often brings with it unwanted bureaucracy.

These four forces, the 4Cs, pull us in divergent directions not simply because we have different personality types, but rather because we seek different destinations.

In future columns, I will describe the functions and dynamics of the Innovation Genome™and how you can use them to make innovation happen in your organization and perhaps even your own life.


JEFF DEGRAFF is a professor, author of Innovation You: Four Steps to Becoming New and Improved, speaker and advisor to hundreds of the top organizations in the world. He is called the Dean of Innovation because of his influence on the field. To learn more about Jeff and his work on innovation please visit You can follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffDeGraff and LinkedIn.

Photo: kentoh / shutterstock

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