25 of the Best Books for Innovators
Regardless of which stats you look at or believe, innovation is without a doubt difficult. Thus, if you’re looking to succeed in it, you need to invest heavily into continuous learning.
There are, fortunately, plenty of great books out there that can help you succeed in innovation, in 2020 and beyond.
I actually wrote a list of some of my favorite books on innovation last year, and I thought now would be a great time to update that list and share it with the readers of Innovation Excellence.
While some of the books on the list aren’t just about innovation specifically, they’ve nevertheless proven to be very useful on our quest to better understand how to lead and manage innovation.
So, without further ado, here’s my current top 25.
1. The Innovator’s Dilemma
Originally published in 1997, this book written by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen is probably the most well-known book on innovation, and for good reason.
The book explains very clearly why disruptive and breakthrough innovations are so difficult for large organizations. In essence, they fail not because they would be poorly managed, but because they are actually managed in a very sound, rational way that just happens to disincentivize innovation.
As such, the book is a great primer for anyone looking to understand the relationship between innovation and large organizations. Given that it simply focuses on the theory of disruptive innovation, it isn’t very actionable, but is still my first recommendation for anyone looking to familiarize themselves with the topic.
2. The Innovator’s Solution
The Innovator’s Solution is the follow-up for The Innovator’s Dilemma that Christensen co-authored with Michael Raynor.
Where the Innovator’s Dilemma focused on explaining the theory of disruptive innovation, this book seeks to be a more practical guide explaining how organizations can become disruptors themselves.
The book is well-written, and the proposed thoughts are presented and illustrated very clearly. Highly recommended reading for every innovator, regardless of whether you’re an entrepreneur, or work in a corporation.
3. Crossing the Chasm
One of the oldest books in the list, Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore is a great book built on top of the theory on the diffusion of innovation.
The basic idea is that every innovation is first used by a set of early adopters with very different value drivers from the mainstream market, which the innovation must ultimately reach if it is to become truly successful. That difference is “the Chasm”, and it has resulted in the death of many a great startup and product.
The book provides a pragmatic take on how to successfully bridge that gap, which has been very helpful in shaping our thinking regarding the lifecycle of an innovation early-on.
4. Blue Ocean Strategy
Blue Ocean Strategy is another book on innovation with a background in academia. Written by INSEAD professors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, it is built on their work regarding value innovation.
The basic idea is that by identifying differentiated value-drivers from the existing competition in the market, a company is able to create innovation that delivers significantly increased value at a lower cost, leading to differentiation and a sustainable competitive advantage.
This differentiation allows you to have your own peaceful “blue ocean” instead of the highly competitive ocean turning red from all the blood spilled by the struggling competitors.
This idea has been at the core of what we’ve always strived for at Viima, and has been a big factor for our impressive growth in a highly competitive market regardless of us having far less resources than most of our competitors.
5. Ten Types of Innovation
Traditionally innovation has mostly been seen as a synonym for new product development, which is still an unfortunately common point-of-view.
In our experience, all top innovators have a much more holistic view of innovation. This is a view shared by Larry Keeley, the author of the book and co-founder of innovation consultancy Doblin.
Based on their research, they’ve identified 10 different ways to use innovation to create competitive advantage, referred to as types of innovations, that ultimately led to innovation success.
The book provides tons of illustrative examples and actionable tools for achieving these results in your organization.
6. Competing Against Luck
Another book written by Christensen and his co-authors, Competing Against Luck explains the “Jobs to Be Done” theory and illustrates how it can be used as a predictable way for creating new businesses and innovations.
The basic idea of Jobs to Be Done is that customers don’t really want to buy products or services, but instead are looking to “hire” them to fulfil a specific need, or in other words, get a job done.
While this might initially seem like a fine difference, the practical implications or actually quite profound. According to the authors, this allows companies to go beyond the traditional way of managing innovation by “playing the odds”, to instead creating predictable success.
The book does a great job explaining the approach, as well as the challenges associated with. Namely, even if it is a clear method that can predictably lead to innovation, successfully using it isn’t necessarily easy in many situations.
Loonshots, written by physicist and entrepreneur Safi Bahcall, provides an intriguing take on innovation by using frameworks and theories derived from physics.
The book has a number of fresh ideas on the challenges that large organizations face when it comes to innovation, most of which revolve around structures and incentives.
Once you understand the dynamics of how these factors work, it’s much easier to predict whether innovation will happen, or not, in any given organization.
The examples used in the book explained the stories of many familiar innovations in great detail, which I personally found fascinating.
8. Playing to Win
Strategy is one of the things you absolutely have to get right with innovation. The innovation strategy of an organization must be properly aligned with the overall strategy of the organization, and it must be executed well.
Playing to Win is a great book on strategy that cuts all of the fluff away and gets to the core of the topic: making tough choices under uncertainty. As the authors put it well: “Strategy is not complex. But it is hard.”
While the examples in the book come primarily from P&G, quite understandable given A.G. Lafley’s background as the CEO, they are very illustrative in explaining the basic theses of the book. This is also the most practical and pragmatic book I’ve read on strategy.
The frameworks outlined in the book have worked well as the foundation for our own strategy work, which goes to show that even the fundamentals are the same even if our company is but a fraction of the size of P&G.
9. Good strategy/Bad strategy
As the name would suggest, Richard Rumelt provides his take on what makes a good strategy good, and a bad one bad in this book.
He starts the book by going off on a bit of rant regarding bad strategy. Still, while certainly provocative, he manages to clearly explain why bad strategy is so common and what the typical mistakes are.
He then proceeds to provide guidelines on what actually makes good strategy. The message here is consistent with Playing to Win: strategy is, in the end, surprisingly simple, but nonetheless hard in practice.
Despite Rumelt’s academic background, the book is very pragmatic and contains quite a few interesting stories from his career.
In the last couple of decades, we’ve seen a number of technology companies, such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, achieve tremendous growth and scale in a very short time span.
In this book, Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn and partner at Greylock Partners and Chris Yeh, explain the concept behind their rapid growth, which they refer to as Blitzscaling.
The basic idea is that in the digital age, the profits in many markets are determined on a winner-takes-all (or at least most) basis. Thus, to achieve this, you have to be “first to scale”. This naturally requires dramatic investments to growth.
If you’d like to better understand the Silicon Valley mindset and the practices these hyper-growth companies apply, this is the book for you.
11. Ego is the Enemy
In this age of shameless self-promotion, Ryan Holiday’s take on the topic is very refreshing reminder of our own fallibility.
The basic premise of the book is that most of the time, our own ego is actually our worst enemy. It can impede our learning, make us blind to our mistakes, as well as make recovery from mistakes more difficult.
Nowhere is this more important to understand than in innovation. We are guaranteed to make mistakes in the pursuit of innovation, so learning and recovering from them is just a part of the job description. Also, if we let our egos blind our critical thinking, we are doomed to fail.
We live in an age of innovation. An increasing number of exponential technologies are reshaping our society, and this book by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler seeks to explain how you can take advantage of these drivers to go big and impact the world.
The first part of the book explains the changing dynamics, the second part goes deeper in explaining how companies can harness these powers, and the third focuses mostly on harnessing tools such as crowdfunding for getting the job done.
I personally found the first half of the book very useful and inspiring and am sure it will be extremely useful for many. The second half of the book is much more specific and might thus not be for everyone.
13. High Output Management
High Output Management, written by Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, is one of the most beloved and widely acclaimed books on management. And as with everything else in business, proper management is also crucial for innovation success.
As a first-time founder, this book has been extremely influential for me personally and after adapting many of the practices from this book in our team, we’ve seen our productivity and business results improve dramatically on many fronts.
I especially love the way Grove has a humble, systematic no-nonsense approach, but still manages to take the “human factors” into account in his leadership philosophy.
14. From Impossible to Inevitable
In innovation, we often obsess about the idea and the product, while forgetting that creating a successful business from the innovation takes a lot more than that.
While many of the advice might be quite specific to SaaS companies, Impossible to Inevitable is still a great reminder on the importance of proper business execution, while providing tons of highly practical ideas and advice.
If your innovation is software or B2B related, this is an especially great read.
15. This Is Marketing
Continuing on the same theme as my last recommendation, marketing often plays a huge role in the success or failure of any given product/service innovation.
Yet, this more strategic role of marketing is still often neglected, or relegated to a bunch of buzzwords. In practice, marketing is often just “bolted on” when more growth is needed, or mistaken to be synonymous with advertising. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t usually lead to great results.
This is Marketing is a great book that summarizes many of the key ideas from many of Seth Godin’s previous books. The key underlying idea is that marketing is ultimately not about selling more, it is about solving other people’s problems, and creating value. Selling more is just an inevitable result of that.
That’s certainly a view we’ve always had at Viima, as evidenced by our free plan, which many people keep calling “overly generous”. However, as we see it, this approach has probably been the single biggest factor in our success so far.
While this book was more of an overview than a practical guide, I still got a few new ideas and insights into marketing, and innovation from the book in addition to it serving as a great summary.
16. Only the Paranoid Survive
Another classic book by Andy Grove, Only the Paranoid Survive tells the story of how Intel managed to survive through a couple of what Grove refers to as “strategic inflection points”, and eventually thrive.
These strategic inflection points force an organization to adapt to massive change almost overnight.
It’s a very inspiring, and illustrative inside look into what goes on behind the scenes as a large organization has to respond to innovation, including all of the uncertainty and doubts involved.
Grove’s story is a great example of how one must always be on the lookout for the next big inflection point to succeed in leading their organization through such massive change.
17. Transforming NOKIA
The fall of Nokia is one of the most recent examples of how innovation, in this case the rise of smartphones, can quickly kill exceedingly powerful incumbents.
The book is written by Risto Siilasmaa who joined Nokia’s board in 2008, soon after the original iPhone was introduced.
He had a front row seat in witnessing the disruption from the inside and provides us with a rare glimpse into the challenges in responding to the rapid changes in the industry, which seemed to permeate all levels of the organization, the board included.
Highly recommended for anyone interested in innovation, or leadership and management in general.
18. The Lean Startup
A modern classic lauded by entrepreneurs everywhere, Eric Ries combines many of the tried and true approaches used by successful startups with lessons from lean manufacturing into a coherent and clear set of processes and practices.
The basic idea is to optimize for speed and learning and quickly validate the assumptions related to the new business, thus minimizing waste related to doing the wrong things.
The Lean Startup approach is a great way to combat uncertainty and create new, sustainable businesses from scratch in rapidly moving markets.
19. Making Ideas Happen
As we always remember to tell our customers, coming up with ideas is the easy part. Making them happen is the hard one.
This book by Scott Belsky is a great primer for helping you with the hard part of implementing the ideas. A lot of the advice is understandably quite generic given the wide-ranging nature of ideas, and a lot of it comes down to common sense.
Still, this book manages to cover most of the common mistakes people make in innovation and I could bet that reading the book is guaranteed to provide you with at least a couple of things that you can improve upon.
20. Zero to One
Zero to One is a collection of notes on how Peter Thiel thinks about creating the future, and on building successful startups.
The basic premise of the book is that the future is created by people who search for things that others haven’t done before, and to do that you have to go back to first principles and think differently from everyone else.
To be clear, the book doesn’t offer much in terms of practical advice on how to achieve that but does a great job of telling you about the mindset that is required to create breakthrough businesses.
21. The Hard Thing About Hard Things
In the Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz provides readers with an intriguing inside look into his experiences from building, scaling and running startups.
The bottom line: it’s not as glamorous as we’re led to believe, even though he was by all measures very successful. It’s incredible difficult, and not just because the odds aren’t in your favor, but because of how psychologically tough and emotionally taxing the journey is.
Even though the pressure on innovators might not always be as high as it is for CEOs in rapidly growing startups, many of the challenges are still very similar.
22. Creativity, Inc.
Creativity, Inc. is an autobiography by Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull. He shares the story of how the company got started and how it overcame the challenges involved in being a true pioneer of their industry.
Even though you often hear that creativity and management can’t co-exist, that simply isn’t true, as we learn from Catmull. He shares the leadership and management techniques, practices and philosophies he used to build a successful business in a creative industry.
While Pixar’s initial success might have originated from just a few creative geniuses, they still managed to build an organization that was able to repeat these successes time and again for 20 years, even as the company grew rapidly. These insights can be extremely valuable if you’d like to become better at leading and managing creative work.
Originals is a book built on the premise that it’s the non-conformists, in other words original thinkers, that change the world.
The problem is that many organizations are very good at suffocating the unorthodox views of these people.
Adam Grant, a Wharton professor of organizational psychology, shares his research on the topic in this book, along with interesting examples to illustrate these points.
He explains how to identify these people in your organization and how you can create an organization where these people, and thus the business, thrive.
24. Good To Great
For an innovation to get to scale and really make an impact, be it on the world or simply in your bottom line, it requires an extended period of successful execution and high performance.
Good To Great by Jim Collins is a very well written book sharing the results of the extensive research his team has done on the topic of what separates the very best from the rest of the companies.
Their research identified seven characteristics that were responsible for this outperformance. These are mostly related very high-level topics, such as strategy, leadership, management etc., but the book still manages to be quite practical regarding these matters and I certainly picked up many ideas from reading it.
25. Extreme Ownership
War is obviously an extreme situation and fortunately very different from what most of us deal with on a daily basis. As a result, leadership lessons from the military are a hugely divisive topic that many in the business world are a bit wary about.
Still, I think those who’ve succeeded in these dramatic circumstances, such as the authors of Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin from the U.S. Navy Seals, have a lot to teach us, especially given their later career as leadership coaches for business executives.
The book shares vivid examples from both the military, and from their consulting assignments, and provides great insight into how exactly leadership can make all the difference in the world, both for good, and for bad.
Given how ambiguous, difficult and confusing innovation can be, great leadership is a must for succeeding in it.
That was my current list of the most useful books for innovators. Hope you’ll find these books useful and inspirational for your innovation efforts!
If you think I’ve missed a great one, or would simply like to chat about innovation, please let me know.
Also, if you’re looking to learn more about innovation, you might be interested in downloading our free Ultimate Toolkit for Innovation, which includes a number of tools that can help you get your innovation work on the right track in 2020.
Image credits: Jesse Nieminen
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Jesse Nieminen is the Co-founder and Chairman at Viima, the best way to collect and develop ideas. Viima’s innovation management software is already loved by thousands of organizations all the way to the Global Fortune 500. He’s passionate about helping leaders drive innovation in their organizations and frequently writes on the topic, usually in Viima’s blog.
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