Where do ideas come from? – cities, and the conference table, reading books; and, oh yes, the long walk. This is the inescapable message of the terrific book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. I think it may be the best book I’ve read this year. (I may change my mind as I look back over the entire year). Last night, I found this blog post by Seth Godin: Where do ideas come from? He doesn’t reference the book by Johnson, but there is a lot of agreement between the two.
Here’s a great quote from the book:
The ground zero of innovation is not the microscope. It was the conference table… The most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop.
As I read the book, I realized that the normal interaction between people, with as wide and diverse a circle as possible, with constant conversation and interaction, really does lead to the kinds of “slow hunches” that lead to great new ideas.
And therein lies the problem.
First, a personal comment. Though I once worked selling clothing at a J. C. Penney store (in my college days), I have never worked in a large company. I have taught at a few colleges, mainly in the Dallas Community College District. But always as an adjunct, which means I arrive just in time to teach, and leave pretty quickly after that. Which means that I have never had the opportunity to interact in the ways described in this book, within a big company.
Thus, I work, basically alone. I have a home office, I read and think and write alone, and then go speak. That’s about it. The conference table is practically a foreign experience for me. (I did spend more than a few years attending the equivalent of church board meetings – but they frequently felt like mild levels of inquisitions, not idea generating laboratories).
I suspect that I am not the only one. The number of independent workers is growing. And though we can network with gusto, attending networking events is not the same as the daily cross-pollination that is described in this book as so very valuable.
There is much being written about the USA slipping down the innovation rankings on the world stage. “The United States is losing its distinction as an innovation leader,” was the conclusion in The Innovation Imperative in Manufacturing: How the United States Can Restore Its Edge. (read the report here).
And there is much being written about the increasing number of “independent workers.” Here is an excerpt from Why Is Washington Ignoring the Freelance Economy?, from The Atlantic. Here’s a key excerpt:
The data speak for itself: between 1995 and 2005 (i.e. before the recession), the number of independent workers in this country grew by 27 percent. In New York City alone, from 1975 to 2007 (again, pre-recession), 2/3 of job growth was due to self-employment. And let’s look at Nebraska: the state boasts among the lowest unemployment rates in the country (4.8%!) by retaining a diverse employment pool with significant numbers of independent workers.
Thus, more and more people are working alone. And though there are many associated problems (health care; benefits…), there may be a “hidden” problem that is as great as any other. Does the independent worker face an innovation deficit?
More people working alone. Fewer conference tables. A decline in innovation. I wonder — is there a connection?
So, here’s the request that came in an e-mail:
We are going on a cruise in September and I want to load my Kindle with three books. What are the three best books you would recommend for my reading? The request came from a very sharp, keen-minded, successful, independent business consultant. He attends one of our book synopsis events. This is my attempt to answer his question.
I am tempted to simply list some of my all time favorite reads (not necessarily the best books I’ve ever read, although they are close — but definitely books that I am very glad I have read), like: The Doorbell Rang, one of my favorite Nero Wolfe mysteries, by Rex Stout; and The Powers That Be and The Reckoning by the truly great David Halberstam; and Defining a Nation, edited by the same Halberstam.
And then there is this: what are the business books from the last few years (and even a little longer ago) that should be on your “I’ve definitely read that book” list? I would certainly include Good to Great by Jim Collins; something Gladwell (it’s tough to choose — probably Outliers); Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf and The Leadership Engine by Noel Tichy; almost anything, but definitely at least one thing, by Peter Drucker. Add to this The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley, and a major personal favorite, The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp.
But – I still have not answered the question. If I had but three books to load on my Kindle for a September cruise, what titles would I choose? Here’s a list of five; you will have to narrow it down to the three that most interest you.
Choice #1: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize winner with his earlier book Guns, Germs, and Steel, has written a tour de force in Collapse, sweeping us through the societies that collapsed, and providing warnings regarding the decisions societies make. An important book!
Choice #2: Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia by Carmen Bin Laden, or, The Looming Tower: Al-Queda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright. Of course, the Wright book is the heftier of the two; it won the Pulitzer, and provides an amazing education about the rise of Al-Queda, what went into their thinking, and especially their animosity toward the West. But there is a personal tone and a very personal take on life in the strict Muslim world of Saudi Arabia in Carmen Bin Laden’s book — the former wife of Yeslam, one of the brothers of Osama Bin Laden. It is a captivating read, and noticeably shorter than The Looming Tower. (You can tell, from this response, that I think we ought to seek to understand this “other” culture that is so foreign to our own).
Choice #3: OK, which two business books to put on the list? Not necessarily which books to read for enjoyment, but which books provide the most important and useful information? I list two choices. I would put The Other 90%: How to Unlock Your Vast Untapped Potential for Leadership and Life by Robert Cooper, because everyone would benefit from reading an occasional “let’s aim high, and take things higher” book. Unfortunately,this book is not available for the Kindle. (Yes, I checked on all the others). So, for this category of business book, I recommend The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. (I haven’t yet read the new Schwartz book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance, which could be a better choice). And, for the other business book, I would have to go with The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande, just because I think it deals with the complexity of this age and provides really valuable suggestions. (And, it gives every patient going in to surgery an important question to ask his or her surgeon: “do you use a checklist?”).
And you will notice that there are no novels on my list. I read about a novel a decade (except for my relatively frequent re-reading of the Nero Wolfe mysteries). But I have actually bought a novel – in the past week. It is: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I might actually read it – one of these days soon.
Two personal footnotes:
#1 – thanks, Tom, for providing a great idea for a blog post. I apologize for answering you in this fashion.
#2 — And, it would be interesting to have Bob Morris give his list of “only three” in response to this request? I’m pretty sure he would have different titles – all absolutely worth the investment of a Kindle purchase and a few hours of reading. So many books… so little time!
update: I definitely should have put The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis into the mix — as the book I would recommend to help you understand the financial meltdown of the last couple of years. So now I am up to six to choose from, to then narrow down to three. Sorry about that.
Here is a simple, short quote, with smart career advice and simple wisdom. As you decide how to invest your reading time, try this as a guideline. It comes from Gail Krachtus, Associate Dean, Lake Forest Graduate School Of Management…
You have to be reading what the people at the top of your organization are reading.
How sound is this advice? Recently, I presented a synopsis to folks who work in a company in Dallas. Karl and I have presented book presentations at this company every month for quite a few years, and on this day the crowd was the largest I have ever had at that company. Why? The book I presented had been quoted by the CEO in a company planning session. Everybody wanted to know the content of this book.
For more reading suggestions from the faculty at Lake Forest, click here.
It’s been a bad week in the Mayeux household. Two nights ago, I drove my wife’s car. That evening, it would not start. I broke the battery! Then, I washed a load of clothes. The washing machine would not spin. I broke the washing machine! And then, I used my hair dryer. I broke the hair dryer (it just quit working!) Yes, I am jinxed — at least this week. Don’t let me anywhere near any piece of machinery you own!
Well, we bought a new battery. And we had another hair dryer. And, we called the Sears repair number, and a repair man came to fix our washing machine. It took him about…3 seonds to figure out the problem, and on top of the flat fee, it was only a little more money, for one replacement part, to get it working. I marveled at his instantaneous diagnosis. I asked him how long he had being doing this. He said about 24 years. He knew what to look for, he found it, and he know how to fix it. He provided a perfect example of a person with expertise.
Well, I don’t know any machine that well. But I got to thinking — I do know one thing almost that well, and what I don’t know, my blogging team members do know (especially Bob Morris, who has reviewed over 1900 books for Amazon.com, and other sites). Here’s what I know: if you name a business issue, I (and my colleagues) know a book — usually, the best book — to help you with that issue. And if you read our blog long enough, you will see plenty of titles that offer a great deal about the most pressing business issues that you are likely to face.
By the way, you might want to check out this post:
Build Your Own Strategic Reading Plan — or, How Should You Pick Which Business Book(s) to Read?
This April, we begin our 13th year of monthly meetings. With just a few exceptions, Karl and I have presented two books a month every month for a full 12 years. Here is the complete list of books presented at the First Friday Book Synopsis since our beginning in April, 1998.
My apology for the format — this is simply a list I keep on a Word document.
Many of these are available for purchase, with handout + MP3 audio, from our ocmpanion web site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com. If you have never ordered from our site, be sure to read the faq’s).
First Friday Book Synopses List
1. The Circle of Innovation by Tom Peters (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)
2. The Leadership Engine: How Winning Companies Build Leaders at Every Level by Noel Tichy (Harper Business, 1997)
1. The Profit Zone: How Strategic Business Design will Lead You to Tomorrow’s Profits by Adrian Slywotzky and David J. Morrison (Times Business, 1997)
2. Half Time and Game Plan by Bob Buford (Zondervan, 1994; 1997)
1. Do Lunch or Be Lunch: The Power of Predictability in Creating Your Future by Howard H. Stevenson with Jeffrey L. Cruikshank (Harvard Business School Press, 1998)
2. The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen (Random House, 1998)
1. Getting it Done: How to Lead when You’re Not in Charge by Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp (Harper Business Books, 1998)
2. Blur: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy by Stan Davis and Christopher Meyer (Addison Wesley, 1998)
1. Alliance Advantage: The Art of Creating Value Through Partnering by Yves Doz and Gary Hamel (Harvard Business School Press, 1998)
2. Corporate Celebration: Play, Purpose and Profit at Work by Terrence Deal and M.K. Key (Berrett-Koehler, 1998)
1. Winning the Global Game: A Strategy for Linking People and Profits by Jeffrey A. Rosensweig (New York: Free Press, 1998)
2. aol.com: How Steve Case beat Bill Gates, Nailed the Netheads, and made Millions in the War for the Web by Kara Swisher (Times Business Books, 1998)
1. Work Would be Great if it Weren’t For the People by Ronna Lichtenberg (Hyperion Books, 1998)
2. Fictions of Business: Insights on Management from Great Literature by Robert A. Brawer (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998).
1. The Creative Priority: Driving Innovative Business in the Real World by Jerry Hirshberg (Harper Business, 1998)
2. The Witch Doctors by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (Times Business Books, 1997)
(click read more to read the rest of the list)
On Seth Godin’s blog, he just pointed to his current reading list. He has now done this twice. I read the titles on Seth’s frontburner, and felt vastly ignorant again. For a book lover, there is always a book reading underway, and always new titles to pursue. It is endless.
“Of the making of books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12) is still, and always, true.
Anyway, here are his links:
Here were a few titles that especially grabbed me:
Exploiting Chaos: 150 Ways to Spark Innovation During Times of Change
by: Jeremy Gutsche
(here’s one that I have presented at the First Friday Book Synopsis)
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
by: Chip Heath, Dan Heath
The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (Perennial Classic.)
by: Eric Hoffer
(yes – I agree – a true classic, and if you have never read it, now is the time)
Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders
by: Adam Morgan
(Read the review by Bob Morris, favorable and useful, here).
So many books, so little time…