Peter Denning Headshot

More Than a Good Idea

Moving from invention to innovation takes practice.

November 2010

In The Innovator’s Way (MIT Press, 2010), Peter J. Denning and Robert P. Dunham argue that successful innovators rely on a skill set, not natural talent. “We thought that they had learned something that most people hadn’t learned,” says Denning, a distinguished professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

In the book, Dunham, founder of the Institute for Generative Leadership, and Denning identify eight practices that can help leaders become more-successful innovators. Here, Denning talks to Profit about what innovation really means, why these practices must become habit, and why it makes sense to start small.

Profit: How do you define innovation?

Denning: If you look in the dictionaries and various books, there are tons of ideas about innovation and wishy-washy definitions, such as, “Innovation is the introduction of something new.” Exactly what does that mean? How do you tell when something’s been introduced? We actually decided to take the most stringent of all the definitions we could find: “Innovation is the adoption of a new practice in a community.” We call this the acid test.

Profit: You outline eight of the practices, from sensing, which aims to create new possibilities, to executing. The final practice is embodiment. What is it?

Denning: Embodiment is much more subtle than the rest. It means that a routine or a habit becomes so ingrained that you can do it without thinking. When you’re trying to make offers or overcome resistance to adoption, things are happening very dynamically and rapidly. If you don’t have the right moves and you have to stop and think about things all the time, you’ll miss the boat.

Also, the final outcome we’re looking for is that the target community embodies the new practice. They say, “It was unnatural at first, but now we do it all the time. We don’t think about it, and it brings great benefit to us.”

Profit: To demonstrate someone who put the eight practices in action, you share the story of your father’s reimagining of your family’s household chores. Why?

Denning: A lot of people don’t realize that you can have innovation in a small target community. All the stories you hear about are these great big things, like Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web or Steve Jobs and the Mac OS and iPhone. These are all wonderful stories, but they’re also the work of masters. These are people who had sufficient skill sets and had developed some networks and followings, so they could actually influence large communities.

The idea that you can produce innovation in your small business or family gives you a lot of power. Over a period of time, as you’re learning to be better and better at the eight practices, you can enlarge the size of the communities that you’re trying to change or help.

Profit: Does everybody in the organization need to know the eight practices?

Denning: That would be nice, but as a practical matter, one of the reasons we have organizations is that you can divide up responsibilities and take advantage of individual talents.