Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Why are there no innovation "best sellers"?

I was contemplating the breadth and depth of books about innovation recently when a thought occurred to me.  I suspect that David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, has sold more copies of his book than all the authors of all books about innovation combined.  David Allen's Getting Things Done has been in the top ten list of business books for over a decade, something I think few other books can claim.  The question that runs through my head is - why is innovation considered to be so important, and yet so few people seem to read any of the many books written about innovation?

The first conclusion one couple jump to is that there are so many books written about innovation that no one book or author could become recognized.  Yes, there are many books written, and frankly many of them, even by well-known authors, are uninformative or unimaginative.  The books that stand the test of time are still the ones written by authors like Christensen and Hamel.  Here's my list of my favorite innovation books, including, immodestly, one of my own.  These are books that every innovator should have on their desks or close bookshelves as ready references.

Looking over the list points out another challenge to identifying a single "best seller" for innovation.  Innovation is a broad umbrella term for a wide array of tools, techniques and methods used to generate and manage new ideas, which may become new products, services or business models.  Innovation branches out into "open" innovation, design-led innovation, reverse innovation and many other flavors and characteristics.  It could be that innovation is such a broad topic that there is a book for anyone, but no one book suffices for everyone.

But neither of these arguments is satisfactory.  Yes, there are many books written about innovation, and innovation is a broad subject.  But there are many books written about personal productivity, and many authors (Covey, Robbins, etc) who are well-known who write about personal productivity.  I think there is something deeper at work.

Using Getting Things Done as an example, we can see that the title itself describes a benefit.  If I learn David's methodology, I may get more done in less time.  I may become more productive, more efficient.  That translates to more time to do more things, or doing the same number of tasks with higher attention and improved outcomes.  In other words, becoming more productive has immediate benefits for me, personally.  Even if no one else works with me to become more productive, I can be more productive at my work, in my personal life, in every aspect of my life.  I invest in the work and I gain the benefits.  Note that some change is necessary.  If I adopt the Getting Things Done methodology I have to change the way I work, in order to take advantage of the benefits.  But I don't necessarily require anyone else to change.  I make the changes, I invest the time and I reap the benefits, even if no one else participates.

And it's this factor that I think separates innovation books and thinking from productivity or other management thought.  Productivity can start at the most basic level - one person focused on one task or one job, and can scale to the largest organization.  As people adopt new methods of working, each can gain a benefit personally and all can gain benefits as corporately they become more productive.  On the other hand, other than perhaps individual inventors with deep skill in intellectual property protection, product development and commercialization, most individuals don't gain much by increasing their personal innovation capabilities.  Even the titles tell this story:  "Getting Things Done" speaks to outcomes and success.  "The Innovator's Dilemma" speaks to confronting challenges.  In many ways, it can be more aggravating and frustrating to become more innovative personally while those around you resist innovation or ignore it.  Few people in corporations benefit by becoming more innovative while the rest of the organization focuses on efficiency.  This is why you often see books written about innovation in a group or corporate setting, but rarely about personal innovation.  Perhaps the best book about personal innovation is actually a book about creativity - von Oech's A Whack on the Side of the Head

I recently spoke to a large gathering of innovators.  I asked, who has read my book Relentless Innovation?  A few hands were raised.  Who has read The Innovator's Dilemma?  About 25% of the hands went up.  Blue Ocean Strategy?  Less than 10%.  The Art of the Long View? No hands were raised.  Open Innovation?  Two or three hands.  And these were active, engaged innovators in large organizations.  I think the biggest struggle many innovators ask themselves is:  What's in it for me?  What benefits do I get personally if I read these books?  It's difficult to innovate alone, and the cost and magnitude of change that must be invoked in an organization to become significantly better at innovation is almost prohibitive. 

There are three barriers that will keep innovation books from becoming best sellers:
  1. The ideas require a group, then a line of business, then the corporation, to agree on a new philosophy
  2. The change they recommend isn't easy and runs counter to many existing business practices
  3. There's little individual, personal benefit to learning and exercising the techniques alone
That's not to say that the combined wisdom isn't valuable or beneficial.  In fact it is often surprising to me how rarely corporate innovators tap into the absolute wealth of information about innovation is that available in published books.  There often seems a need, almost a desire, to discover for oneself or to reinvent what has already been discovered and documented. But that's a discussion for another time.

An innovation best seller must define how individuals, teams and organizations can benefit from the significant change necessary for innovation to flourish, and must demonstrate how that knowledge can be deployed and implemented quickly, without impact to existing knowledge or processes.  But since most organizations have deep investments in existing capabilities, that suggests that innovative companies have to be built with those concepts from the start.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:53 AM


Blogger Rahul Deodhar said...

A book on how to innovate is not as successful because it is not the innovators who need to learn how to innovate. The book must be read by Managers, CEOs and shareholder (investors), they must read.

11:21 PM  

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