Summer Reading List: 17 Great Books Every Innovator Should Read

by Greg Satell

Summer Reading List: 17 Great Books Every Innovator Should Read - Innovation ExcellenceAfter nearly seven years writing this blog, I’ve decided to start work on a book about innovation. While there is certainly no shortage of great innovation books on the market, I feel strongly that the time has come for a different approach and I think there is much I can add to the discussion.

The problem, as I see it, is that most of the literature tends to be narrowly focused on a particular approach, leaning heavily on either a single organization’s experience or a limited set of case studies. These can be very helpful if they happen to describe a problem you’re trying to solve, but absolutely useless when they don’t

That’s why I’m writing this book, to give managers a more complete account of how to match problems with solutions. To do so, I’ve cast a wide net, talking to a diverse array of executives and researchers about their work. There have also been many books that I’ve found helpful. So for this summer’s list, I’d like to highlight 17 books that I think innovators should read.

The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

An innovator’s first job is to understand the era in which he or she lives. Countless enterprises have failed because they did not see the winds of change. At the same time, even a breakthrough idea can fail if it doesn’t gain traction because it fails to tap into current technology trends.

There is perhaps no book which explains our current technological era than The Second Machine Age, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, two economists from MIT, which gives a comprehensive, but highly readable, account of how exponential progress in technology affects our businesses and our lives.

This is one of those books I’ve returned to again and again.

The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon

In The Rise and Fall of American Growth, economist Robert Gordon makes the diametrically opposite argument to Brynjolfsson and McAfee. While they argue that technology will usher in a new era of almost limitless productivity growth, Gordon sees an era of stagnation ahead.

Gordon argues that, outside of the tech sector, productivity has been anemic since the 1970’s. He also points to six headwinds, such as an aging population, elevated debt and global warming, that will further inhibit productivity growth in the years to come. His account is painstakingly researched and well argued.

To be clear, I don’t agree with Gordon. I think he misses the extent to which digital technology is giving rise to entirely new fields, such as genomics, nanotechnology and robotics, that will have a far more pervasive impact than computers ever did. Still, his historical account is so compelling and the questions he raises are so important, that I think this is a must-read book.

The Startup Owner’s Manual by Steve Blank

Probably the most powerful tool for developing a new idea that has come out in the last decade or two—or ever—is the lean launchpad methodology developed by Steve Blank. A lifelong entrepreneur, Blank has built a highly practical and effective framework based on the simple idea that “no business plan survives first contact with the customer.”

Blank’s ideas have become almost an industry in themselves, spawning a wide array of books, consulting practices and keynote speeches, most notably Eric Ries’ bestseller, The Lean Startup, but I always think its best to go straight to the source and The Startup Owner’s Manual is an absolutely essential resource for anyone launching a new business, whether it is a startup or a new product line within a larger organization.

Business Model Generation by Alex Osterwalder

If Steve Blank himself were to recommend a book for entrepreneurs, it would probably this one, which build on Steve’s ideas by creating an easy-to-use Business Model Canvas to help develop a path to profitability. Osterwalder’s methods have become so important and pervasive, that it’s hard to get a startup funded these days unless you can show you’ve followed them.

Another nice thing about this book is that it’s highly graphical, which makes it easy to follow step by step. It’s not the type of book that you highlight and make notes in, but rather something that you keep on your desk and use everyday.

Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg

Innovation is, as I’ve written before, a process of finding novel solutions to important problems. In other words, great innovators are able to get things done when most people have either given up or hit a wall. In Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg, an editor at The New York Times and author of The Power of Habit, offers great insight into how that’s done.

This is a truly wonderful book. Told through an incredibly diverse set of stories ranging from the making of Pixar’s hit movie Frozen the the Yom Kippur war, and backed by thorough research into the science of productivity, Duhigg argues that the key to getting more done is not working harder or longer, but changing the way we think about problems.

Humans Are Underrated by Geoff Colvin

We tend to think of innovator’s as incredibly clever and that’s usually true, but they are also great collaborators. It is rare that anybody has more than one piece of the puzzle, so for really tough problems you need to work as part of a diverse team. Innovation, more than anything else, is combination.

In Humans Are Underrated, longtime Fortune editor Geoff Colvin makes the case that as technology is increasingly automating cognitive tasks, the social aspects of work are coming to the fore. So if you’re looking to solve really tough and important problems, you need to stop looking for the best people and start building the best teams.

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson is one of those rare authors that I recommend to buy anything he publishes as soon as it comes out. His biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs are all among the best of the genre. His latest book, The Innovators, is no different.

Starting from Ada Lovelace and the origins of computing, Isaacson traces his way through the history of information technology all the way up to the present day. As he does so, he illuminates us about the incredibly diverse collection of incredible minds who created the technology we know today.

What is perhaps most important about this book is the powerful argument he makes for collaboration. None of the brilliant people he profiles worked in isolation and all borrowed and learned from each other. At the same time, Isaacson makes the story incredibly engaging and readable without giving short shrift to important technical aspects.

The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil

When Ray Kurzweil published The Singularity Is Near in 2006, many scoffed at his outlandish predictions. A year before Apple launched its iPhone, Kurzweil imagined a world in which humans and computers essentially fuse, unlocking capabilities we normally see in science fiction movies.

Yet today, his predictions don’t seem so crazy. We now find it completely ordinary to speak into our phones and get an artificially intelligent response. And, as I noted above, the three nascent technologies he predicted would come to the fore, genomics, nanotechnology and robotics, are indeed becoming central to how we create revolutionary new products.

This is a book that anybody with a serious interest in technology should read.

The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun

Over the years, I’ve read dozens of books about innovation but this remains one of my favorites. Berkun, a former Manager at Microsoft, offers a continuous stream of wise and practical advice as he takes on pervasive myths such as “people love new ideas” and “innovation is always good.

It also includes a countless number of quotable gems such as “Don’t worry about anyone stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats” and “Big thoughts are fun to romanticize, but it’s many small insights coming together that bring big ideas into the world.”

It’s rare that a book is so insightful and such a joy to read at the same time.

The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat by Eric Lax

One of the most popular and inspiring stories about innovation is that of Alexander Fleming, a brilliant but somewhat careless biologist who returned to his lab one day to discover that the petri dish he had been growing bacteria cultures in had been contaminated by a mold. Yet instead of throwing the sample away, he studied the mold and discovered penicillin.

As it turns out, that’s not the full story. What actually happened was that after Fleming published his paper, it went unnoticed for a decade. It was then rediscovered by Florey and his team, who created a workable version of the drug. Even then, it was years before they were able to come up a method for making enough penicillin to be effective.

So what at first seems like a sudden flash of insight, turns out to be a major collaborative effort that encompassed the work of dozens of people, across a number of labs, over nearly two decades. In The Mold In Dr. Florey’s Coat, Eric Lax tells the real story in an incredibly exciting and engaging way.

Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes

Among the great events in innovation history was Edison’s invention of the light bulb and his opening of his Pearl Street Station to distribute power. Yet soon after, George Westinghouse teamed up with Nicola Tesla with to challenge Edison with a competing system. The result was one of the greatest business rivalries in history.

In Empires of Light, Jill Jonnes tells the story of this famous “war of the currents” with painstaking research and a real eye for storytelling. It’s an absolute delight to read and will give you an inside look at the early days of one of history’s most innovative periods.

Dealers of Lightning by Michael Hiltzik

In the early 1970’s, Xerox established its famed Palo Alto Research Center, better known as simply “PARC,” with the aim of creating a new “architecture of information.” Over the next ten years, it created many of the basic elements of modern computing, including the mouse, the graphical user interface, the ethernet and laser printers.

In Dealers of Lightning, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Michael Hiltzik delivers a full account of the people who were behind these innovations, how they did it and why Xerox was never able to fully capitalize on their work. This is an amazing book and anybody who’s interested in how pathbreaking innovations become viable products should read it.

Weaving The Web by Tim Berners-Lee

This is one of those books that I would recommend to just about anybody. It tells the story, in Berners-Lee’s own words, of how he created one of the most significant innovations ever: the World Wide Web. What’s more, it’s an intensely readable, personal story, which lays bare the ups and downs of creating something genuinely different.

The truth is that Berners-Lee never set out to create the Web, he was merely trying to create a system to help the scientists within CERN get better access to each other’s papers. When he saw the potential went beyond that, he tried to get other people interested in building it. Frustrated when he couldn’t, he sat down in November of 1989 and did it himself.

It’s rare that someone so accomplished writes a memoir that is so humble, open and interesting.

War Made New by Max Boot

What do the Hydrogen bomb, the Minuteman missile and precision guided weapons all have in common? They all provided crucial financing for technology that we now carry around in our pockets.  It is a curious fact of modern society that civilian life, in large part, is powered by the technology of war.

In War Made New, Max Boot tracks the history of military innovation. Starting with the invention of gunpowder in the 15th century, he gives  a wonderfully insightful and well written account as he weaves his way up to the cutting edge drones and military robots of today. Strangely, I found it one of the most practical innovation books I’ve ever read.

The Innovator’s Solution by Clayton Christensen

Christensen is best known for his ideas about disruptive innovation explained in his first book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Yet in many ways, this one is better. While his earlier work was more focused on proving his case, this one explains the principles with greater clarity. He wrote it six years after the first one, so he had some time think things through.

Another advantage of this book over its predecessor is that it applies Christensen’s principles to business strategy, rather than just innovation per se.  So it’s much more of a practical guide than merely an explanation of a theory.

Open Innovation by Henry Chesbrough

It used to be assumed that innovation needed to be an internal and highly secretive enterprise. Security protocols were regarded to be almost as important as scientific ones. It was thought that to let anyone in on what you were doing would be to forsake any possible competitive advantage.

In Open Innovation, Henry Chesbrough shatters these myths by showing how firms who take an open approach can often innovate faster and more effictively. It’s wonderfully researched, including in-depth case studies of companies like Cisco, Intel and IBM. This is one of those foundational books that everyone should read.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn

This book changed the way people thought about innovation even before the term came into widespread use. First published in 1962, it coined the term “paradigm shift” and explained how “normal science” becomes “revolutionary science.”

As Kuhn explains, new paradigms don’t emerge whole, but first arrive as a series of quirky anomalies that are easy to dismiss as “special cases” that we can work around.  This usually works pretty well for a while and things go on much as before. But eventually, the anomalies add up and the old paradigm becomes untenable. That is when revolution happens.

One insight I found particularly compelling was Kuhn’s argument that new paradigms always contain old ones, a point that anyone looking to “shatter old models” should keep in mind. This book is somewhat dense and not for the faint of heart, but it is more than worth the effort.

My agent is currently finishing up contract negotiations with the publisher for my book about innovation, which I hope will add something useful to the ones above. I expect to have the writing done by the end of the summer, which would mean a launch sometime early to middle of next year.

In the meantime, you can see many of the ideas covered in the book in this article I posted earlier this year. I’ll keep everyone updated on how things progress on the @DigitalTonto Twitter account and on the Digital Tonto Facebook page.

Editor’s note:

The author has not yet read newest books by Innovation Excellence co-founders: Braden Kelley’s Charting Change: A Visual Toolkit for Making Change Stick and Rowan Gibson’s The 4 Lenses of Innovation: A Power Tool for Creative Thinking. We think they’re worth checking out!

image credit: gbert2.org

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Greg SatellGreg Satell is a US based business consultant. You can find his blog at Digital Tonto and you can follow him on Twitter.