Top 5 Innovation Books of the 21st Century

Innovation is a tricky word. On one hand, it has become so devoid of meaning that it might be time to send it to the same retirement home where ‘leverage’, ‘it is what it is’, and ‘paradigm’ are kicking up their feet drinking margaritas together. On the other hand, it is the key to human progress and one of the most meaningful pursuits we have at our disposal. So, rather than retire it completely, I wanted to focus on books that do a great job of stripping the word innovation of its hype and look at it in all its crazy, messy beauty.

The books on this list explore multiple aspects of innovation — from idea creation to deep theory to entrepreneurial advice. I have intentionally picked books that look at the concept of innovation from different angles because that is what has helped me to best see it as a whole. These books have helped me to understand how to run my business. How to identify and solve problems on a global scale. And how to help some of the most innovative companies on the planet stay that way.

I have gone back to these books time and again. I have taken notes in the margins (in pencil!) and bookmarked the pages. I hope you enjoy them and find them as useful as I have.

#1. Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull. 2014.

A view of innovation from Pixar — the masters of storytelling

I read this book when I was at a key decision point for my company and it was unbelievably helpful. Why? Because it was honest. Ed Catmull tells the real story of how messy creativity can be. How hard it is to encourage idea generation and refinement in a company full of creative minds. He focuses most of his time on the concept of failure — how to identify it and how to come back from it. It is very important for all of us to realize that even the most innovative companies in the world actually get it wrong many times before they get it right. As his subtitle suggests: there are unseen forces that stop the progress of ideas, inspiration and innovation. There are processes we can use to ferret these out, however, and he discusses these processes in beautiful detail.

#2. Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. 2010.

Historical perspective on how ideas ‘happen’

Steven Johnson has been transforming my thinking since he wrote “Everything Bad is Good for You” in 2005. My son and I read with glee as he promoted video game play and tore apart the sacred cow of reading. In this book, Johnson challenges the conventional idea of the ‘lone inventor’. He explores how ideas build on each other and progress over time. He is a key promoter & influencer of the open office plan which has been under attack lately. Despite some valid criticisms, the concept that innovation comes from the building of ideas I still think it is the best environment for idea-making. He lays out the case for why that is.

#3. The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch. 2011.

Fantastic exploration of human progress

Why is a book by the person widely considered to be the father of quantum computing on my list? Because this book is essentially a treatise on the nature of innovation. Deutsch discusses human progress across all of time and discusses the unique way of thinking that was born in during the European Enlightenment. He proposes this way of thinking allows for progress that is ‘unbounded’ or infinite in its potential & duration. He explores the importance of good explanations & ceaseless error correction. He has an entire chapter on the evolution of creativity & the nature innovation. Deutsch explores, among other things, the importance of creating a culture that values a specific way of thinking to allow for the full potential of human progress to continue. This cultural theory can be applied to the creation of business culture practices best suited for innovation. I’ve rarely been more inspired than when listening to or reading the thoughts of David Deutsch. He is one of the preeminent minds living today.

#4. Running Lean by Ash Maurya. 2012.

Practical, actionable advice on creating innovative products

This is the most practical, directly applicable book on my list. It takes the concepts from The Lean Startup and applies them to everyday reality of building a business filled with people who are responsible for building innovative products.It will help to translate the insights of the other four books into specific, actionable principles and tactics for designing and delivering innovative products. Running Lean outlines methodologies to ensure your designs are solving real problems and builds on the ideas of the other books in its focus on failure, error correction and iteration. It is here specifically for CEOs, startup founders, or other senior-level managers but can help anyone in the product design industry to push their thinking and methodologies forward.

#5. How Google Works by Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg. 2014.

Google: the masters of creating an innovative company

My list ends how it began: with a book by someone running one of the most creative companies on the planet. I think what struck me most about this book is that Eric came into Google after it was well-established as an innovation engine. So, he has both an outsider and an insider perspective. Can you scale an innovative culture from a company of tens to one of tens of thousands? Yes! Schmidt & Rosenberg are able to outline with clear anecdotes and examples how Google was able to retain its innovative culture even as it grew into one of the largest companies on the planet.

There you have it!

What do you think? Tell me about your experiences with these books — or any others that have been especially helpful to you that I should put next up on my list.