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17 Great Books Every Innovator Should Read (Part 2/2)

It is known that what we read shapes our minds somehow. In Part I of this article, Gregg Satell talked about the power of books and he highlighted 8 books that he thinks innovators should read. In this part of the article, Gregg Satell continues highlighting 9 other books that he thinks every innovator should read. Here they are; 

  • 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.


This article was previously published on Innovation Excellence

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