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What’s the “Secret Sauce” of Innovation?

Published October 04, 2019

By Chenelle Martinez, NYAS Staff

What's the Secret Sauce of Innovation?

What Makes One Person More Innovative Than Another?

Is the ability to innovate a learned skill, or is it inherent? According to The Innovator’s DNA, an article first published in the Harvard Business Review, innovative entrepreneurs possess what’s known as “creative intelligence,” which enables discovery, yet goes beyond the usual “right-brained” creativity. Innovators actually engage both sides of the brain and leverage what the authors of the HBR article call the “five discovery skills” to create new ideas.

So you may be wondering, what are these so-called five skills or “ingredients” that make up the “secret sauce” of innovation, and can I develop them? Whether you’re striving to be the next Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk or simply seeking to be a more innovative individual in order to grow your business, the good news is, if you aren’t born with these skills, you can learn them. And you actually don’t need to possess all five, or even two or three; you just need one.

idea taking off

After six years of studying innovative entrepreneurs, executives and individuals, Clayton Christensen and his co-authors uncovered that these people are all proficient at one or more, of the following skills:

  • Associating: Ability to connecting seemingly unrelated questions, ideas or problems from different areas.
  • Questioning: Challenging the status quo by asking “Why?”, “Why not?” and “What if?”
  • Observing: Scrutinizing common phenomena, particularly behavioral.
  • Experimenting: Trying new ideas.
  • Networking: Seeking to meet people with different viewpoints, ideas and perspectives in order to expand your knowledge.

According to the authors, the most important skill to practice is questioning. Asking “why” or “what if” can help strengthen the other skills and allow you to see a problem or opportunity from a different perspective.

Ted Cho, President of StartupHoyasMED, an organization dedicated to healthcare startups and innovators at Georgetown University, notes that many of the innovators and entrepreneurs who are part of the StartUpHoyas community created their companies by observing and questioning their surroundings. “The startups with the greatest potential to create impact come from outsiders with fresh perspectives,” Cho says. He cites Melissa Antal and Maria Rivera as an example. Co-founders of a nutrition app called foublie, which helps parents navigate their child’s feeding journey, their innovative idea was born out of a research project that explored how parents feed their children.


The most important skill to practice is questioning. Asking "why" or "what if" can help strengthen the other skills and allow you to see a problem or opportunity from a different perspective.


male entrepreneur

What Antal and Rivera discovered was parents and caregivers were being overwhelmed with conflicting information, making it very difficult for them to know the healthiest approach for their child. Antal and Rivera questioned the common food practices they saw around them and decided there had to be a better way. So they created their app to help families access personalized information and nutrition experts so they could feel empowered to make the healthiest decisions for their kids.

Cho says you don’t need to be an expert in the area you’re observing or questioning in order to be able to think of an innovative solution. He points out that not all of the innovators and entrepreneurs in the StartupHoyas community are medical students — many are students and faculty from other areas of the university, who bring new ideas on how to improve healthcare. These students aren't locked into the conventions that can restrict many of the traditional players in the healthcare space. This reinforces the idea that innovation skills can be developed vs. being inherent.


The startups with the greatest potential to create impact come from outsiders with fresh perspectives.

— Ted Cho, President, StartupHoyasMED


According the HBR article, studies of identical twins separated at birth indicate that one's ability to think creatively is only one-third genetic. As the authors state: “That means that roughly two-thirds of our innovation skills come through learning — from first understanding the skill, then practicing it, and ultimately gaining confidence in our capacity to create.”

Want to learn how to be more innovative? Start by watching our video series on Creative Problem-Solving.