Recommended Reading for Ambitious Innovators

Recommended reading for ambitious innovators
Recommended reading for ambitious innovators

Reading should never be a guilty pleasure. But it can get that way if work pressures really grip and/or family demands mean those precious grains of free time are lost before sleep…

Like holidays, books provide an escape. And whilst the odd trashy novel smuggled its way into my luggage this summer, the two most valued literary companions tackled completely different subjects.

Recommended reading for ambitious innovators

Whether you want to start a new enterprise, develop a product or work to resolve a global problem, a different kind of thinking is required to give your ambition the greatest chance of success. Forward focus is important. However, in this highly connected and complex world sustainable innovation is most likely when the creative mind is open to understanding and engaging the deeper and broader issues.

Being a master of quick-fix failure I knew Steven Johnson’s book ‘Where good ideas come from – The Seven Patterns of Innovation’ (see him talk on TED) would be an invaluable holiday read. All 246 pages were devoured in 4 days.

The Adjacent Possible

From Darwin’s Paradox to Willis Carrier’s invention for air conditioning, Johnson cleverly reveals the generative order of forces that underpin sustainable innovation. Central to his evolutionary science-based thesis is the term ‘Adjacent Possible’ and the fact that all new innovation builds and scaffolds on the past much like a coral reef or burgeoning fractal pattern.

Throughout, Johnson also refers to the Internet (and its founder Tim Berners-Lee) and highlights how the explosion of web innovation is built on one man’s original desire for greater connectivity and sharing of ideas.

ambitious innovators
‘Adapt’ by Tim Harford is recommended reading for ambitious innovators


To accompany Johnson’s masterpiece I also re-read ‘Adapt – Why Success always Starts with Failure’ by the Economist Tim Harford. I first referred to this work in the Blog piece ‘Start now and Value the Journey’ and I can’t recommend his writing highly enough especially if you are seeking direction for a new project. Like Johnson, Harford uses rich and varied source material to support his argument (from military campaigns to third world aid).

The thrust of the book is the value of ‘trial and error’ as a way of getting things done; as opposed to the norm – top-down central governance that operates through a rigid hierarchy. Woven expertly into the text is the work of a Russian engineer, Peter Palchinsky, and the 3 principles he adopted for getting things done and solving problems:

  1. Seek out new ideas and try new things
  2. When trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable
  3. Seek out feedback & learn from your mistakes as you go along

Ultimately, Harford’s book turns to the reader and uses a Billy Joel inspired musical to demonstrate why people struggle with failure (3rd principle) and why we don’t seek feedback and thus learn from our mistakes and adapt. Humans, he rightly argues, have difficulty holding apparently contradictory thoughts (cognitive dissonance) which means we deny failure has happened and thus don’t learn from the experience. The trick is always to confront mistakes (however difficult it may seem) and extract the lessons.

Step Away Finally, an underpinning message within both texts is that innovation and success through trial and error requires the creative mind to regularly abandon its absolute focus. New environments are needed to stimulate and nurture thoughts and hunches over time. Hobbies, time spent chatting with friends and colleagues as well as walks with others are all encouraged. Interestingly, Steve Jobs was a big fan of walking and Jon Steele (Perfect Pitch) highly recommends getting away from the subject at hand when thinking creatively.

Whatever you choose to do, you will probably find that the scale of your achievable ambition is proportional to the networks of people you create and the interests and hobbies you nurture. Likewise, the scale of your achievable ambition is likely to be proportional to the time you are able to put aside for reading.

Key Learning Points: Successful entrepreneurs are often ambitious innovators. For greatest chance of success, thinking needs to be based on sound structures and the mind must be open to hard work, failure and a desire to understand the connected issues. Throughout, reading is essential.    

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