An unexpected summer reading list for innovators

You may not think that reading about traditional Japanese arts, or architecture, could help you innovate. You’d be wrong.

I was recently asked by too many people to produce a reading list for this summer to really be able to refuse gracefully. Now, this is not a simple matter. To some extent, my straightforward answer would be: read everything about innovation that has been published in these last 20 years, that is not purely redundant, and then… forget it all.

You’ll keep enough information in the back of your brain anyway, and will have rewritten your cognitive biases with new perspectives and intuitions that will stay for long.

But of course, you don’t want that.

Scott BERKUN (author extraordinaire of ‘Making Things Happen’) wrote in 2012 a blog post about The 5 best books on Innovation EVER.

Read it.

If I had to only keep five books, I would pretty much disagree with his list. But it’s not that important. What is important is his foreword to the list. It goes like this:

There are 100s of books on innovation and most are terrifyingly (and ironically) boring. They’re bought to be placed, unread, on office shelves so people can pretend they’re smart. These books are cliché in the worst way, cherry picking trendy examples and building worlds of junk theories around them, theories the heroes in the cherry picked examples didn’t even use. Innovation is a junk word, and there are many junk books.

It’s not clear why anyone should read a book about innovation. There’s little evidence people we’d call creative got that way by reading a particular book. Most skills in life are only acquired by work, and to be more creative means to create and learn, rather than merely read. (…)

People looking for a book on innovation often make the mistake of compressing the many sloppy uses of the word into a single thing, and expect one book to excel at teaching people how to: 1) Generate ideas and invent things 2) Design and ship good products 3) Run a successful entrepreneurial business 4) navigate an organizational bureaucracy. These are very different skills, possibly even different subjects.

These four skills are rare. It’s insanely rare for one person to have two, much less three of them. It’s improbable any book could single-handedly give you one of these skills, much less all three.  Any book claiming to do any of this is lying to you.

Thanks Scott, that was perfect.

This being out of the way, let me try not to be too much of a smart ass, and give you five books anyway. I would also go as far as to recommend that you’d consider reading list in that precise order. Now, let’s see why these five books:

Guerilla Marketing

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Guerilla Marketing.

Because… Enough already with growth hacking!

Your size is your strength.

Go back to the basics before you even dare think of yourself as a wizard hacker of the social interweb. Levinson did explain it all in clear and specifics terms in 1984.
And no, this is not a typo, this is an old book by internet standards. But that’s the point. The core drivers are still crystal clear.

I would even go as far to recommend buying an old copy. Don’t bother with most of the updated content: it will be technically obsolete tomorrow’s morning anyway. Keep your focus, understand the underlying principles.

Embrace guerrilla as a business principle in ever-shifting markets.

Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers

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Wabi-Sabi for Artists…

Because innovation is not a process…

Be comfortable with ambiguity and contradiction.

You may find cheesy or overly pedant, to put on this list a rather obscure book on Japanese aesthetics. I understand. Although, growing a better grasp on innovation cannot be achieved through a MOOC session.

Why not try an indirect approach? Anything that can help rewrite your vision of the world may help. And this is a tremendous book for this very single purpose.

As a bonus, I do think that it is a wonderful excuse for you to take a real day off alone, disconnect, and enjoy a peaceful park or a quiet riverside.

101 Things I Learned in Architecture School

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101 Things I Learned in Architecture School.

Because your expectations are on innovation books are off anyway.

A good building reveals different things about itself when viewed from different distances.

I bought this little unassuming book on a hunch a few months ago. Since then I used regularly as a kind of divinatory I-Ching for business and problem-solving. Pick a random page, try to apply the principle to the problem at hand, bam! Epic win.

Obviously, this is another oblique strategy to rewrite your brain with patterns more suited to innovation. I’m shameless.

The Laws of Simplicity

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The Laws of Simplicity.

Because you always overdo it.

Context. What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral.

This book is from John MAEDA, not MÉDA. No self-promotional plug here. That would be redundant, you’re already reading our blog.

Now, you may connect this other little book to wabi-sabi aesthetic principles, or not. You may think of the “Less Is More” post-World War II minimalism, or even the later “Less Is a Bore”… I don’t know. Whatever you may think, I watch myself coming back to this book very (very) often.

The trick of presenting 10 laws of simplicity would usually trigger all my sarcasm-reflex brain zones. Not here. I do find it quite on point actually. And OK, bear with me, I do really know how stupidly Yodaesque it reads. But past this kind of mantras, everything is laid out in extremely precise and practical ways, without the usual bore of outdated examples from industries from the Tesla or Ford era.

Give it a chance.

Read Me.

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Read Me.

Because I have to remember to get better at this every day, and so do you.

If you can’t explain your physics to a barmaid, it is bad physics.

Broadly, we all struggle with keeping things simple. But we also specifically find difficult to convey focused information to our audiences.

Training people is difficult. Writing blogs is difficult. Delivering briefs is difficult. Leading a team is difficult. Picking the right message for your landing page is difficult. Defining a business call to action is difficult…

For all that, chapters about ‘memes, memory, and stickiness’, or a clear approach to solving customer’s problems, not the ones’ of the brand… do help a lot.

Extra bonus: buy a paper version (there’s probably no e-format anyway), the book is beautifully rendered with a lot of visual context and cues. And it’s not a coffee table sort of monster. You’ll be able to bring it on a plane or train for your next trip.

read me - merkapt

So here you go, this is my summer reading list for innovators. Keep things light, make space for different cognitive processes and enjoy your summer. You can still poke me on @icopilots : )

Author: Philippe

After obtaining a PhD in biotechnologies, and working in a medical diagnostic startup, Philippe Méda has managed teams and companies in the medical and pharmaceutical industries for over fifteen years. Following an MBA in 2007 Philippe founded Merkapt, a consulting agency in charge of co-piloting innovation for startups and large multinationals, in Europe, and Asia. Since then he has been training 200 to 300 startups a year, consulted for dozens of multinationals on rupture innovation or corporate incubation, and was directly involved in more than 150 startups building their market fit and scaling up their business. Philippe also teaches innovation and business model design in key MBA programs in Paris and Shanghai and is now living in Amsterdam.