December 14, 2016
As technologists, we are the vanguard of innovation. We’re at the forefront of technological innovation. Even if you’re slagging COBOL in the basement of some bank, you’re still dragging your organization into the future. Ever wonder how that process actually happens? What can you do to be more creative?
I’m fascinated by this topic, so I put together a talk about it. (abstract / slides) It distills what I’ve learned from reading dozens of books on innovation and the history of technology. To save you some time, I put together a list of my favorite innovation related reads. If you’re curious about this topic, these books are a good place to start.
Sapiens is a highly entertaining, unorthodox view of human history. Not only is it informative, it challenges basic assumptions about ideas that most people don’t realize they’re making. It’s a great description of early human history and how we got to the modern age. It’ll really open up your mind.
Innovation is not evenly distributed. There are certain times and places throughout history that have “golden ages” of innovation. Geography of Genius explores a few of these places and tries to find what ties them all together. This book is very interesting and you’ll learn about some places that you don’t see much of in the classroom.
Unlike what the history books tell us, innovation is more bottom up than top down. Matt Ridley does a fantastic job describing how in Evolution of Everything. He covers a several major innovations including religion, money, and government. This book challenges many deeply held beliefs and illustrates how innovation is an evolutionary process.
This book offers a more tactical look at creativity. It’s also a great guide to improving other aspects of mental performance. Charles Duhigg does a fantastic job mixing science with fascinating stories.
Creativity requires concentration. A commodity in short supply in the modern age. In Deep Work, Cal Newport makes a compelling argument for making “deep work” (focused work) one of your primary priorities. I changed several of my habits after reading this one.
While I enjoyed the Lean Startup, I felt like it treated innovation more like a roulette wheel than a process you can influence. “Just pivot until you make it big or run out of money.” In Competing Against Luck, Clayton Christensen describes a fantastic intellectual power tool for building new products. The “Jobs to Be Done” theory of innovation. If you want to build a product, I highly recommend this one.
One of the most important things you can do to become more innovative is empathize with and learn from people whom you disagree with. We live in a society that’s increasingly polarized, but this book the antidote. In the Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explains the moral foundations for different political outlooks and makes a strong case for civility in political discourse. This is a must read if you have trouble dealing with people who don’t share your beliefs.
Here are a few non-book resources to check out:
Kevin Kelly’s concept of protopia (as opposed to utopia or dystopia) is really enlightening.
In How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, cartoonist and business author Scott Adams describes his “success formula”. Each area you master roughly doubles your odds of great success. This is a great case for diversifying yourself. You can either get his book or read this article:
If you’re looking to diversify yourself, here are two excellent resources:
The Personal MBA is a reading list that’s meant to give you the business skills taught by an MBA program. I’ve read many books on this list and have not been disappointed. It’s also got great selections on personal finance and psychology.
The Great Courses are a series of college level lectures that you can listen to in your car. Personally, I’m a big fan of their history selection. They also have courses on psychology, philosophy, and business.
Innovation is partly a network effect. This article describes why cities with a higher population density have higher per capita rates of innovation.
Everything is a Remix is a video series about cultural innovation by Kirby Ferguson. I have yet to find a better description of how culture is generated by remixing other cultural elements.
This is a TED talk on how Google X (Google’s own skunkworks company) takes risks and creates a culture that fosters psychological safety.
This list of resources will open your mind and help you become a better innovator. If you think I missed something, feel free to drop it in the comments.