Top Books on Innovation

I’m excited to be on this new list of top innovation books, at

Explaining Creativity by Keith Sawyer

If innovation were a religion, then creativity would be its clergy and this textbook, which collects all the latest scientific research on the topic, its bible. Sawyer does a masterful job of dispelling many myths surrounding the field, such as creativity is only about the flash of insight or rejecting convention. Finally, some (empirical) fundamentalism we can all embrace.

Other books on this list, by David Dabscheck:

Creative Intelligence by Bruce Nussbaum

Innovation as Usual by Paddy Miller & Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

Running Lean by Ash Maurya

The 7th Sense by William Duggan

Inside the Box by Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg

101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar

The Art of Critical Making by Rosanne Somerson and Mara Hermano

Lemelson Invention Education Workshop May 2014

Today I’m flying to Washington DC to participate in a fascinating two-day event, focused on helping our K-12 students learn how to be creative and innovative. This is a national priority in today’s global innovation economy. Here’s what my invitation letter, from the Lemelson Foundation, said:

Substantial challenges exist that, in part, can only be effectively addressed if creative minds invent the products that will meet those challenges….To create the inventions that will improve lives requires new generations who are inspired to be agents of change through invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Cultivating this ability is at the core of invention education.

The Lemelson Foundation’s approach to invention education is to support students to become inventors and to launch invention-based enterprises that create jobs and strengthen the economy.

I love it, and I said “yes” to this invitation right away.

The Lemelson Foundation is developing education programs that provide students with what they call an “invention toolkit” of the following skills:

  • The capacity to think critically, and identify real-world problems and possible solutions (I would call this “design thinking”)
  • Providing a strong base of skills in STEM disciplines (you can’t invent the new unless you know what already exists)
  • Nurturing the ability to turn ideas into solutions through creating designs, fabricating prototypes, and incorporating entrepreneurial thinking (this is very much aligned with maker culture and entrepreneurship education)

This workshop is positioned right at the center of several important movements: design education, entrepreneurship education, and creativity and learning. My own research is most closely associated with the last, educating for creativity, but in my new professorship at the University of North Carolina, I am also developing entrepreneurship education programs.

Stay posted for another post when the event ends Tuesday afternoon!

Bruce Nussbaum’s New Book Creative Intelligence

Bruce Nussbaum is known for his excellent work as an editor at Business Week, where he founded their quarterly innovation insert called IN: Inside Innovation. He’s now a professor of innovation and design at Parsons School of Design in New York, and he’s just published his first book, Creative Intelligence. It’s a pleasure to read, it’s filled with timely anecdotes, and it’s grounded in the latest research. There are almost 70 pages of footnotes!

What I really like about Nussbaum’s book is his perspective as an expert in design thinking. He tells the story of how his title, “Creative Intelligence,” emerged from a Stanford conference called “The Future of Design” in 2010. In his view, the “design thinking” trend is fading a bit, and giving way to an increasing focus on creativity. The last few years have seen creativity research converge on a core set of shared findings, starting with my 2007 book Group Genius, then with Peter Sims’ 2011 Little Bets, Steven Johnson’s 2011 Where Good Ideas Come From, and Jonah Lehrer’s book now-discredited 2012 book Imagination (which was largely derived from these earlier works). Nussbaum knows this research well, and his book contains many of these messages–particularly emphasizing the importance of collaboration in creativity–but using several anecdotes I wasn’t familiar with. For example, he quotes Keith Richards saying

What I found about the blues and music, tracing things back, was that nothing came from itself. This is not one stroke of genius. This cat was listening to somebody and it’s his variation on the theme. And so you suddenly realize that everybody’s connected here. They’re all interconnected. (p. 9)

As Nussbaum later says, “Creative Intelligence is social: We increase our creative ability by learning from others, collaborating, sharing.” (p. 30)

Nussbaum organizes the research into five “competencies of creative intelligence”: Knowledge Mining, Framing, Playing, Making, and Pivoting. I checked these out pretty closely, because in my own forthcoming book, Zig Zag, I propose eight creativity disciplines. Nussbaum’s five overlap quite a bit with my eight, and I’m intrigued by the differences, as well.

Knowledge Mining. This corresponds to the second and third steps in my book, LEARN and LOOK. Creativity depends on a large body of domain-specific expertise, that’s why it takes years of work before a person can make a creative contribution. But creativity also benefits from an open and inquisitive mind.

Framing. This is closely related to what creativity researchers call “problem finding”–the ability to frame and formulate a question in the most promising way. This is my first step and I call it ASK.

Playing. Sure enough, my book’s fourth step is PLAY. Imagine, get silly, have fun.

Making. And again, my book’s eighth and last step is MAKE. This section of Nussbaum’s book is strong; he describes the new maker and DIY culture, and the impact of cheap 3-D printers.

Pivoting. This trendy term usually gets used to describe when a startup company switches direction in response to customer feedback. My own book’s title, “Zig Zag,” describes the frequent twists and turns that precede successful creativity. By “Pivoting,” Nussbaum means the process that leads “from the inception to the production side of creation.” The core message of my book is that the creative process zigs and zags during that process, and Nussbaum would agree with that. This section of his book has some great practical advice about how to manage the process successfully.

The core message of Creative Intelligence is perfectly aligned with the latest research:

Creative intelligence is about tools, not lightbulbs. It’s something we do, not something that happens to us. It’s about what happens during those moments of insight, but also after; it’s the hard work and the collaborations that can help bring your idea out of your mind and into the world.

The Davos Audience

Davos Day 2

I participated in my first Davos session, a dinner session Wednesday night about design thinking and the CEO, a full house with about 40 people at five tables. Bob Sutton of Stanford did an excellent job of moderating the event.

A couple of tentative observations about those in attendance: First, there is a truly diverse mix of people. They seem to broadly divide into the more political and policy sphere, and the more business and management sphere. The session topics also fall into these broad categories. (The three sessions I’m participating in are all in the business and management area.)

I suspect that a lot of the executives are here not only for networking, but also for a high-level form of executive education. For example, several of the CEOs in our dinner session were hoping to learn more about design thinking–specific techniques and strategies for making it work in their organization. Others in attendance had already shifted their organizations to design thinking, and they were there to share observations and stories.

This was a new session topic for Davos. It’s an important topic and the interest was strong. What worked for me was the extremely diverse range of backgrounds, industries, and perspectives in the room.

Design Thinking

Click here to order
Click here to order

Change by Design, the long-awaited book by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, has just been published. And it’s getting a lot of press: it was excerpted in Business Week’s October 5, 2009 issue, and was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal on October 9, 2009 (“The shape of things to come”).

The book’s genesis dates back to a legendary article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Design Thinking.” It’s IDEO’s approach to innovation–to focus on “new ways of communicating and collaborating.” Designers have always done these things, using a toolkit that includes user observation, brainstorming, prototyping, storytelling, and scenario building. As Brown writes,

“Design” is no longer a discrete stylistic gesture thrown at a project just before it is handed off to marketing. The new approach taking shape in companies and organizations around the world moves design backward to the earliest stages of a product’s conception and forward to the last stages of its implementation–and beyond.

Something interesting happened a few years ago, when IDEO was asked to redesign the patient health care experience at Kaiser Permanente hospitals. IDEO had previously focused on product design, but was now being asked to apply its innovation methodology to a service organization. The result is now legendary (a famous business case has been written about the project) and the result is that “innovation and design thinking [have been introduced] across the Kaiser system.”

Yes, the iPhone looks beautiful and works well, and that’s the result of design thinking. But we’re not just talking about making cool things; we’re talking about changing the way we experience the world. As Brown writes, “In the process [designers] are helping to make our societies healthier, our businesses more profitable, and our own lives richer and more meaningful.”

Is innovation dead?

On New Year’s Eve, December 31 2008, Bruce Nussbaum (editor of Business Week’s quarterly innovation inserts), declared that “Innovation is dead.” Provocative, coming from the man who leads the innovation beat at America’s leading business magazine.  It turns out he means that the word “innovation” is dead, due to hype and overuse…but not that innovation itself is any less important.  He writes “We need a deeper, more robust concept. ‘Transformation’ captures the key changes already underway.”  What is transformation?  ” ‘Transformation’ takes the best of ‘design thinking’ and ‘innovation’ and integrates them into a strategic guide for the unknowable and uncertain years ahead.”

Ah, so if we add together two overused buzzwords, we’ll get a newer and better buzzword.  Now that’s innovation!  I guess editors and weekly magazine writers have to be provocative every now and then, to sell more issues.  (Blogs are supposed to be provocative, too…I should work on that.)

I emphasize creativity and innovation in this blog not because it’s a recent trend; I’ve been doing research on creativity for almost 20 years.  I emphasize innovation because of the mass of solid research showing that more innovative companies are more successful (more total shareholder return etc.)  I agree with Mr. Nussbaum that design thinking is a transformative way of thinking and naturally links with innovation.  However, design thinking is more limited in scope than innovation…I’ll elaborate on that in a future post.  Maybe that one will be provocative!