Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff knew how to step back and relax, having perfected the idea for his company while swimming with dolphins.

It’s impossible to imagine a world without Google’s search engine, Apple’s iPhone or Disney World. These products are integral to life as most of us know it, but they might never have existed if Larry Page, Steve Jobs and Walt Disney didn’t excel at a critical discovery skill: associational thinking. These leaders saw opportunity in – and created works of genius from – things others didn’t believe belonged together.

Innovators think differently. For years, my colleagues and I studied high-impact leaders and innovators – getting inside their heads to reveal the behaviors separating them from the rest of us. Associating, or connecting the seemingly unconnected, is a cognitive skill at the core of the innovator’s DNA. Yet, in business, it’s one of the most undervalued skills.

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