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The Present

5 essential books for spurring innovation

These books will help you ideate more creatively.

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

Key Takeaways
  • Being a generalist in multiple fields can spark innovation in something outside of your expertise.
  • It is critical to understand the role of organizations in the future.
  • Applying patterns from genius innovators into your own thinking processes.

The Medici Effect

Interestingly enough, a great deal of world-changing insights and discoveries come from people with little or no direct experience in the field they innovated in. Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect was written to figure out why that is so.

Johansson explores how breakthrough ideas occur when we bring concepts from one discipline into new and unfamiliar fields and then offers a game plan on how we can turn our ideas into new innovations themselves.

The basic premise behind the book is that ideas from unrelated disciplines play a major role in causing huge jumps of progress in another field. The book reviews a wide range of examples, from the creator of the card game Magic, to the team behind GPS. It’s just as eclectic and far-ranging as the subject manner it explores.

It’s a thoughtful book that inventors and other creatives can routinely use as a reference. For those aspiring Renaissance women and men, they’ll be happy to hear that almost all great innovation stems from this type of broad stroke and diverse thinking.

“Leonardo da Vinci, the defining Renaissance man and perhaps the greatest intersectionalist of all times, believed that in order to fully understand something one needed to view it from at least three different perspectives.”

Reinventing Organizations

Author Frederic Laloux, sets out to define the new age of organizations. His central premise is the idea that we should stop looking at companies as machines that need to be fine tuned and built part by part. Rather than seeing them as separate mechanical entities, we should shift our focus to see them as living beings that can naturally grow and develop by themselves.

While the idea might seem like it’ll spark chaos and flimsy business prospects, it turns out that fluid and dynamic companies create a self-functioning natural order. Laloux punctuates this point with a number of examples which show companies led with this approach outperform many traditionally managed companies.

“Life, in all its evolutionary wisdom, manages ecosystems of unfathomable beauty, ever evolving toward more wholeness, complexity, and consciousness. Change in nature happens everywhere, all the time, in a self-organizing urge that comes from every cell and every organism, with no need for central command and control to give orders or pull the levers.”

The main metaphor is the idea that organizations should no longer be designed like “soulless, clunky machines” they should instead be pushed to act like living beings “fueled by the evolutionary power of life itself.”

The author hopes that this new way of thinking about the organization could help us invent a more purposeful method for the way we conduct business.

“The most exciting breakthroughs of the twenty-first century will not occur because of technology, but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.”

The Innovator’s Solution

In a follow up to the international bestseller The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton M. Christensen and Michael E. Rayno explores how companies can become disruptors themselves. With a wide range of in-depth research and theories from hundreds of company case studies, the authors categorize and identify the processes that spur innovation.

Where The Innovator’s Dilemma dealt with theory, The Innovator’s Solution is all about implementation. The essence of their advice is to start with an idea that is somewhat profitable and go after under-served customers to address a need where no product exists. It’s easier to do this than try and develop on a market that’s already saturated with solutions and one that your company has already been involved with for some time.

“Disruptive innovations, in contrast, don’t attempt to bring better products to established customers in existing markets. Rather, they disrupt and redefine that trajectory by introducing products and services that are not as good as currently available products. But disruptive technologies offer other benefits—typically, they are simpler, more convenient, and less expensive products that appeal to new or less-demanding customers.”

Where Good Ideas Come From

Steven Johnson researches the many disparate path where good ideas come from. Johnson establishes a set of platforms for doing so. The main 7 patterns are, the adjacent possible, liquid networks, the slow hunch, serendipity, error, exaptation, platforms. Each chapter works to describe the pattern and then associates that with an anecdote of some inventor and then goes into more technical detail to elaborate on the specific examples.

Here are a few explanations of the patterns.

The Adjacent Possible looks at how innovators unlock new advances by taking simpler components that are already available in the environment. Innovators take simple ideas and make them slightly more complex in a continual evolving process. Liquid Networks occur when there are randomized components and ideas smashing up against each other. The author considers cities and the internet to be an example of a “liquid environment.”

The Slow Hunch is the “Eureka moment.” This is best cultivated by slipping into other fields of inquiry and keeping ideas on the backburner at all times. The more you learn and grow, slowly these hunches come to fruition.

“The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle; reinvent. Build a tangled bank.”

The Ten Faces of Innovation

Tom Kelley, author of the bestselling book The Art of Innovation, writes about the strategies that renowned design firm IDEO, uses to foster innovative thinking. Kelley identifies ten different roles that people can play in an organization to keep a dynamic spark of innovation alive.

The ten roles are broken up into three distinct types. The learning personas consist of the anthropologist, experimenter and cross-pollinator. Respectively, each one is meant to observe interactions in the world, continually work on prototypes of new ideas and explore other industries and cultures of the world.

The next set of personas is the organizer. This includes the hurdler, collaborator, and director. Their main functions are to overcome obstacles when inventing, bring people together and to lead teams in a creative environment.

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The last type is the building persona. This consists of the experience architect, set designer, caregiver and finally the storyteller. Their main function is to design experiences, create spaces for innovation, anticipate what a customer wants and to build morale through storytelling endeavors.

It’s hypothesized that a team made up of all of these roles will most likely have a greater chance of coming up with more innovative solutions.

“Success depends on picking the right team and casting them in the proper roles. All participants strive to achieve their personal best while thinking of the teams’ performance throughout. If you work on those [baton] exchanges to the point where they become smooth and fast, you’ll be amazed at how much you can achieve together. In today’s global economy, your baton passes are just as likely to need to cross over oceans as well as departments.”


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