Even before it went on sale, Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators was a bestseller out of the gate. Here’s why the biggest business book of the year is indeed a compelling read – and how it falls short of truly innovating the topic of innovation.
I’m like most techno-geeks. Anything with a battery turns me on. Which is why I was thrilled when my advanced copy of The Innovators arrived from Simon & Schuster’s PR department.
Having been intimately involved in the field of innovation for the past 20+ years, I passionately tore open the hefty manila envelope, jumped on the couch, nestled up with all 542 pages of hard-bound bestselling titillation, and began to sink my teeth into my literary romp.
Then I completely lost my business innovation boner.
Innovation – Business’ Biggest Buzzword
Isaacson kicks off his book by proclaiming, “We talk so much about innovation these days that it has become a buzzword, drained of clear meaning.” So true. It’s the same problem the Wall Street Journal flagged over two years ago when it revealed that over 250 books were published with “innovation” in their titles – in a three-month period.
Most of us know Isaacson from his last blockbuster title, Steve Jobs. If any author on today’s stage has the street cred to introduce yet another book on the tired topic of innovation, Isaacson’s the man.
Isaacson boldly asserts that his latest work is, well, more innovative than the rest of the books, blogs, and articles out there on the topic. The Innovators, he says, uniquely focuses on the more nuanced angles of teamwork, collaboration, leadership, and the nature of technology that most everyone else misses.
Good News, Bad News, Good News
The most compelling part of The Innovators – and the thing that got my business innovation juices flowing the most – are the first six pages that contain a graphical timeline chock-full of technology pioneers and cascading events leading up to present day. Truly seductive.
The timeline begins with Ada Lovelace who pioneered software programming and even roughly described the concept of the computer – in the 1840’s (yes, the 1840’s!). Thanks to the timeline, I now know who Lovelace is, and I also know what Gordon Moore (of the famous Moore’s Law) actually looks like. The timeline is great foreplay for anyone who enjoys having a little appetizer that foreshadows what’s about to come.
But for busy business execs with ADD who demand the Cliff Notes version of just about everything including their kids’ high school English class essays, The Innovators will be a frustrating read. The book leaves it up to the reader to decipher just about all of its innovation insights.
With that said, it’s my view that The Innovators may actually become one of the more important historical accounts of our digital history. The book reveals the backstories of the numerous technologies, entrepreneurs, teams, and companies that may be familiar to many readers, but not intimately known. I, personally, appreciated the photo and mention of Nolan Bushnell’s game-changing video game – Pong. What male Gen Xer hasn’t been conditioned to emit a Pavlovian drool at the mere mention of the word “Atari?”
All this ain’t a bad contribution to the field of technology and innovation. Kudos.
Big Conclusions with Little Insights
While The Innovators is a fascinating historical account of how our digital world transformed our mainstream world, Isaacson won’t lead you to your next disruptive innovation. Let’s face it; most of us are obsessed with finding the next big thing. We desire tried-and-true principles and useful practices. When I invest in a 500+ page book, I want a little direct ROI.
In his 21 page conclusion, Isaacson devotes a mere 10 pages to the section he calls Some Lessons from the Journey. That’s about 1.8% of the book formally dedicated to making explicit the latent patterns and transformative success factors inherent in the incredible stories that he uncovered and wove together.
Here are the big conclusions that I’ve mined directly from Isaacson’s own words:
- Leadership – “The most successful endeavors in the digital age were those run by leaders who fostered collaboration while also providing a clear vision” (page 484).
- Teamwork – “Creativity is a collaborative process” (page 479). “The most productive teams were those that brought together people with a wide array of specialties” (page 480). “Another key to fielding a great team is pairing visionaries, who can generate ideas, with operating managers, who can execute them” (page 481).
- Collaboration – “The digital age… was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations” (page 480). “Brilliant individuals who could not collaborate tended to fail” (page 485).
- Physical Spaces – “Another lesson of digital-age innovation is that, now as in the past, physical proximity is beneficial. There is something special… about meetings in the flesh” (page 480).
- Technology as a Social Phenomenon – “Almost every digital tool, whether designed for it or not, was commandeered by humans for a social purpose… Even the personal computer… inevitably led to the rise of modems, online services, and eventually Facebook” (page 485).
- Combining Art & Science: “The truest creativity of the digital age came from those who were able to connect the arts and sciences” (page 5).
I’ve been in the innovation space for a long time and I must say, Isaacson’s conclusions aren’t exactly earth shattering.
In 1953, Alex Osborn described creativity as a collaborative process in his book Applied Imagination. In 2005, Dan Pink wrote A Whole New Mind, which reveals that the combination of art and science (aka left brain and right brain thinking) is the source of creativity and what’s needed for the future. And last year David Burkus published The Myths of Creativity which dispelled the lone genius light bulb over the head archetype. The list of robust resources that highlight the theories and delve into the realities of collaboration, teamwork, leadership, creativity, innovating at the intersection of art and science, the importance of physical space and co-located teams, etc. could go on, and on.
I love the title of Isaacson’s book. I love the premise of the book. It’s my prediction that The Innovators will become an instant classic. And it should for its historical account. It will undoubtedly give tech junkies a nice jolt of nostalgia and a rich narrative to understand their digital DNA.
Unfortunately, The Innovators falls short when it comes to innovating the practice of innovation. It will undoubtedly leave anyone who really wants to innovate, well… a little bit limp.
Maybe that’s why I kept turning back the pages to peep at the timeline.