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12 Essential Innovation Books (you probably never heard of)

Corporate innovation, to borrow from Winston Churchill’s description of Russia, is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an ever-growing cloud of hype. Finding substantive guidance is made even more difficult by the dizzying array of books on the topic, which too often value anecdote and feel-good advice over rigorous application. Fortunately, for those struggling to increase their own innovation capacity as well as that of their organization, there are several books that can help solve this puzzle. Following are 12 hidden gems and forgotten classics from key categories within innovation.

Essential books on creativity

Zig Zag by Keith Sawyer

Over the last few decades academic research has shattered many of the persistent myths that cling to the creative process, like “creative ideas emerge mysteriously” or “you are either born creative or not.” Sawyer is the rare professor who is both a leading expert and an accessible and engaging writer. In this book he outlines an eight step program, which includes over 100 practical exercises, to turn anyone into a more creative problem solver.


Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko

Many organizations' idea generation sessions are like the medieval practice of treating a sickness with bloodletting leeches – scary, painful and, completely useless. With this book, Michalko will help bring your organization into the modern era by collecting together a wide variety of ideation and problem-solving tools, from the CIA’s Phoenix checklist of questions, to SCAMPER, which was originally proposed by the founder of brainstorming, Alex Osborn. 


A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger  

From Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs, from Netflix to Google, many of history’s most innovative people and companies have been less concerned with solving problems than finding the right question to ask. Using seemingly simple queries – “Why,” What if,” and “How” – Berger demonstrates not only why questions are beautiful, but also why they’re fundamental to the innovation process.  


Essential books on innovation strategy

The Other Side of Innovation by Vijay Godvindarajan and Chris Trimble

Many organizations have no difficulty generating the initial enthusiasm and ideas for innovation, but then subsequently fail to do anything meaningful with them leading employees to rightfully brand these efforts as "innovation theater." Based on a decade of research, Govindarajan and Trimble focus on the long, difficult, and largely overlooked aspect of executing innovation initiatives. They show how you can improve your execution hit-rate by building the right team and running disciplined experiments. 


Strategic Intuition by William Duggan

What unites Bill Gates, military strategist Carl Von Clausewitz and Pablo Picasso? According to Duggan, each succeeded in tapping into what he calls our “strategic intuition” to produce new and useful ideas to strategic challenges. In this fascinating  work that draws heavily from brain science, Duggan provides a framework to help readers develop a strategy to foster their own flashes of insight.


Essential books on innovation methodologies  

The Design of Business by Roger Martin

Enthusiastically embraced by organizations from a variety of industries and sectors, “design thinking” is rapidly becoming the approach among the innovation fashionable. Martin persuasively argues that today’s businesses almost exclusively rely on analytical thinking, which produces incremental rather than breakthrough change. Martin provides the conceptual framework for understanding exactly why and how design thinking can add unique value to organizations. Using examples from Procter & Gamble to Cirque du Soleil, Martin shows us why the wide spread interest in design thinking is well placed. 


Running Lean by Ash Maurya

While perhaps not as well-known as Eric Ries, Steve Blank or others in the “lean startup” movement, Maurya performs an invaluable service in condensing the hows, whys, and whats of lean startup into an actionable and accessible manual. As startup terms like “Minimal Viable Product (MVP),” “pivot,” and “customer interviews” become the common language of innovation, this book doubles as an essential handbook and dictionary.


The Innovators Method By Nathan Furr & Jeff Dyer

No single innovation methodology can answer every challenge, as each has its own respective strengths and weaknesses. In a mere 242 pages, Dyer and Furr distill the best thinking from a range of popular methodologies, such as design thinking and lean startup, into a comprehensive, powerful and end-to-end approach for managing innovation and uncertainty. They write, “…in high uncertainty, the only durable advantage is the ability to manage uncertainty.” Indeed. 


Essential books on innovation case studies

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull & Amy Wallace

This behind-the-scenes look into the animation studio Pixar reveals a rich array of management practices and organizational processes that help to foster creativity and innovation. Catmull and Wallace dispel the common myth that creative excellence is a spontaneous process rather than being the result of extensive — and often frustrating — iterative development. Honest admissions, like, "early on, all our movies suck," make this book a source of inspiration during those moments of despair that we all face on our innovation journeys. 


The Master Switch, By Tim Wu

Wu, who coined the term “net neutrality,” discusses the future of the internet in the context of how information industries of the 20th century—telephone, radio, film and television—all began free and open before eventually succumbing to the domination of a monopoly or cartel. Whether the internet will share a similar fate is far from clear, but Wu’s incisive analysis helps us understand that the pull towards a centralized power did not disappear with the empire builders of the past and very much continues in the present day.  


Essential non-innovation innovation Books

Failure by Stuart Firestein

While failure is crucial to innovation, the word is throw around so often that it has been robbed of all meaning (much like innovation itself!). Firestein provides some much needed clarity to the term in an series of crisp essays that illuminate why failure is so intrinsic to the success of science. This slim volume is packed with fresh insight and humor, like how the Second Law of Thermodynamics can be used to justify one’s messy desk.   

Unflattening by Nick Sousanis

The first comic ever published by Harvard University Press, this book is both one of the most unique PhD theses ever written and an incisive meditation on the relationship between text and images. While the word “innovation” doesn’t appear anywhere in the book, the philosophy animating it is the same that lies behind the innovation process. Most companies comfortably operate in a flattened two-dimensional world between execution and scale; unflattening them demands regaining what Sousanis calls the “wonder of what might be.”