While I’m on a semi-summer break, I wanted to answer a request I often have (not only from my MBA students but also from my corporate customers): “Philippe, what kind of books would you recommend to boost our innovation mindset?”. Glad you asked! Here are five of the most recent ones I read and why you might find them interesting:

1. Subtract

“The Untapped Science of Less” is a perfect entry point to change your innovation mindset.

For a lot of human history, we’ve been surrounded by a world that can mostly be improved by adding stuff… where adding was really the dominant way to make things better. This idea that we systematically overlook subtraction as a way to make things better is really problematic.

Engineers entering the field of entrepreneurship and execs driving innovation projects are all under the same curse. They want to build and create and add to the world. Practical innovation is so often viewed through the lens of adding features. But what if adding value for our customers required that we do less? Not just do less for the sake of just doing so, but for the sake of surgically removing clutter, redundancies, and inefficiencies? Haven’t we learned something from the success of the Google search box? When designers end up thinking about reducing to the max naturally, the rest of us struggle to get there — cue in your usual Dieter Braun quote.

If you know my hardcore dedication to focusing on added value and removing everything else (as much as possible), you’ll understand why I appreciated its book. This is a key to boosting your innovation mindset!

2. Finite and Infinite Games

Although not a business book, this one touches on a critical principle of innovation: some market problems are finite and can be studied and understood to a large extent; others are open-ended and will never comply with market research. For a long time, I discussed this idea by referring to puzzles and mysteries, and here’s another way to have this discussion.

A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

While James admittedly develops a more metaphysical perspective, it’s still a significant boost for your innovation mindset. For instance, it gives an exciting perspective on risk-taking:

It is a highly valued function of society to prevent changes in the rules of the many games it embraces… Deviancy, however, is the very essence of culture. Whoever merely follows the script, merely repeating the past, is culturally impoverished. There are variations in the quality of deviation; not all divergence from the past is culturally significant. (…) Cultural deviation does not return us to the past, but continues what was begun but not finished in the past…

Replace ‘deviancy‘ with ‘innovation,’ and you’ll get my point.

3. The Scout Mindset

“Why Some People See Things Clearly, and Others Don’t” is somehow linked to the previous book; this one addresses the mindset of seeing change coming ahead of the curve, but more importantly, recognizing it for what it is and accepting it.

Scout mindset is what allows you to recognize when you are wrong, to seek out your blind spots, to test your assumptions and change course.

Here, you will find a call back to this previous notion of two games to play. In the words of Julia, one type of game requires ‘soldiers‘ and another one that requires ‘scouts.’ This is an issue I often discuss when working with corporate incubators: they keep on running projects with a lot of certitudes about the market when they should launch exploration runs with eyes wide-open to the uncertainties building up around them. They’re good soldiers, not curious scouts.

A scout might hope to learn that the path is safe, that the other side is weak, or that there’s a bridge conveniently located where his forces need to cross the river. But above all, he wants to learn what’s really there, not fool himself into drawing a bridge on his map where there isn’t one in real life. Being in scout mindset means wanting your “map”—your perception of yourself and the world—to be as accurate as possible.

Anyway, if you are involved in any innovation program, this read is guaranteed to boost your innovation mindset!

4. Working Backwards

Back in the strict business zone with “Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon,” The book is a collection of many things: from the way the Amazon culture enforces six-pagers docs instead of Powerpoints; weekly meetings are run where clearly structured data and metrics; or how the Kindle was designed and launched. It’s a fantastic dive into Amazon’s culture and the way it adapted its behaviors to its values.

(…) we became aware of another, less positive trend: our explosive growth was slowing down our pace of innovation. We were spending more time coordination and less time building. More features meant more software, written and supported by more software engineers. (…) At last we realized that all this cross-team communication didn’t really need refinement at all–it needed elimination.

What did you say? Subtraction? Yes, indeed.

What is fascinating here is the constant determination to work back toward the company’s goal. Every conventional process that occupies 6 hours a day of any manager in a conventional company is slashed away mercilessly unless it’s a concrete step-stone to what needs to be delivered.

But for once, instead of a colorful collection of anecdotes, the book gets technical and gives you proper how-tos.

5. Range

This last book connects the other ones. Innovation appears from changing markets. It’s a non-finite game relying on open-mindedness and a capacity to scout for new values…  “How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” touches on a core skill I developed pretty soon in my consulting adventures: being able to connect information, best practices, and know-how cross-markets.

The main notion entertained by the author is “we need more people able to connect ideas across different playfields”; who can have a systemic vision of problems, if you will. This calls for some of us to renounce specializing in vertical domains but dabbles in as many as possible.

For reference, our usual sales pitch : )
Like chess masters and firefighters, premodern villagers relied on things being the same tomorrow as they were yesterday. They were extremely well prepared for what they had experienced before, and extremely poorly equipped for everything else. Their very thinking was highly specialized in a manner that the modern world has been telling us is increasingly obsolete. They were perfectly capable of learning from experience, but failed at learning without experience. And that is what a rapidly changing, wicked world demands—conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts. Faced with any problem they had not directly experienced before, the remote villagers were completely lost. That is not an option for us. The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.

And as much as you will find it pejorative (or at least difficult to put on a CV), I love the term that David uses: we need more “deliberate amateurs.”

A great, great read for my MBA students who have a chance to dabble in many things and become non-experts at many pivotal things ; )

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