Innovation does not come easy. While a few standout companies have embraced creative thinking, most traditional businesses do not encourage employees to color outside the lines. Still, innovation, when successful, draws huge rewards. Steve Jobs with Apple. Elon Musk with Tesla and PayPal. Ingvar Kamprad with Ikea. Jeff Bezos with Amazon. What makes these guys think so differently?

You might say it’s all in their genes, hard-wired in their left-right, top-bottom brain processes, but you’d be wrong. The big thing shared by most innovators is that they are great at associating things. They ask questions. They look at something and wonder why—or, more importantly, why not. Then, they experiment and network like there’s no tomorrow.

The take away here is the best part of the whole message: the innovator’s skill set is something that can be learned. Sure, genetics plays a part, but the great thing is that anyone armed with desire and drive can employ associative thinking, supported by four other discovery skills, to transform into an innovator.

I recently invited Dr. Jeff Dyer, coauthor of The Innovator’s DNA with Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen, to do a workshop with my team at Adobe. Jeff spent time talking with every person on the team, reinforcing that whether the task at hand is raising children, building a skyscraper, or designing a marketing plan, everyone gains innovative ground by associating to connect the unconnected.

Innovative thinking is born of a set of five discovery skills, unleashing a powerful way of looking at the world. The first skill, associative thinking, is a cognitive process that is pervasively supported by four other discovery skills critical to innovation:

  • Questioning
  • Observing
  • Networking
  • Experimenting

Successful innovators know their weaknesses, and few are good all across the board. Embracing your weakness, and knowing who to bring in to carry that piece of the workload, is a key aspect of innovative success.

In recognizing how helpful associative thinking can be, I’m reminded of a problem my team at a big subscription business solved a few years ago. We were tracking B2B digital marketing efforts across several different touchpoints. Digital tracking made the task easier but also more complicated. Tying together ad copy, emails, downloads, sales calls, and all other touchpoints became a true challenge.

We decided to bring all the touchpoints together, creating an array. Through pattern analysis we created a new way to understand the existing cause and effect relationship, and we learned how to apply something usually used in B2C marketing for our B2B challenge.

We ended up patenting the process, sharing it with customers, and using it to measure complex sales cycles. The process continues, to this day, to tell us where to allocate our dollars and how many dollars we return for every one invested.

That innovative solution, as simple as applying a process from B2C to our B2B world and tweaking it with analysis and an array, was made possible by simple, associative thinking.

Innovators change the way we do simple, everyday things by making them faster, more efficient, or more attractive. Wouldn’t you like to join that club?