The 5 best books on Innovation EVER

Before I share the list of the 5 best books on innovation, here’s a list of 5 things you need to know before reading that list. It’s worth it. I promise.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. I carefully studied over 60 books, related to creativity, invention and managing creativity in others during research for my bestseller, The Myths of Innovation (research that included teaching a course on creativity at the University of Washington – syllabus). And I’ve read more books before and after that project. I even organized the books I studied in an innovative way for readers. I’ve been studying creativity in many forms for a long time and my list reflects wide and deep reading.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

There. All done.

I can confidently say if you only read 5 books these are the ones to read and re-read:

  1. Innovation and Entrepreneurship, by Peter Drucker.  Drucker is profound, clear, concise and memorable. He puts modern business writers to shame with his clarity. This short books encapsulates all of the theory you need to think about starting a business, and what it will take to find, develop, launch and grow product ideas. (Also see,  The Art of the Start, Guy Kawasaki, and if you work in the tech-sector, Founders at Work is a must-read)
  2. Thinkertoys,  Michael Michalko. There are many books with exhaustive lists of methods for generating ideas. This is one of them. The misconception is that idea generation is the hard part, which it rarely is. But for those looking for games, tactics and methods to generate ideas this is a great place to start. (Also see, Are your Lights on?, by Gause and Weinberg).
  3. Dear Theo, By Vincent Van Gogh (& Irving Stone).  Before you dismiss this one, consider this: what we call passion in the business world, is passion for profit. What if there was no profit motive? How much passion would our heroes, like Edison and Jobs, have had for the ideas alone? To learn about the deepest commitment to ideas you have to study artists. There are no better stories of passion than great artists pursuing their creative visions against all odds and Van Gogh’s letters are a fantastic encapsulation of commitment, vision, dedication, brilliance, work ethic and madness, all traits any creator or entrepreneur should understand. (Also see, The Agony and the Ecstasy, for a similar book about Michelangelo).
  4.  They all laughed, Ira Flatow. History is biased in that we retroactively inject purpose and narrative structure into stories of invention, so that they make more sense to us in the present. But the real history of invention and discovery is messy, weird, frustrating and surprising. This book documents how frustrating it usually is to have a great idea in a mediocre world. (Also see, Connections, by James Burke – all episodes of the documentary based on the book are free online).
  5. Brain Rules, John Medina. I’ve read many books about intelligence and neuroscience – they’re mostly pseudo-fluff, filled with the latest theories and shocking claims, but lead to no tangible improvement in how you use what’s between your ears. Brain Rules is the book to read about how to use your brain to better use your brain. While it’s not strictly about creativity, show me a creative person who didn’t use their brain well (See my full review of Brain Rules here).

There. Have fun.

Most of these books are old. Well guess what? Innovation and creativity are old too. The best advice is not necessarily the newest, despite our compulsive neophilia. Just be glad I didn’t recommend Vitruvius’ ten books on architecture (which happens to be one of the only sources for the story of Archimedes and ‘Eureka‘).

But I implore you to do more than read. Like learning to play guitar, you can only learn so much from books. You must get to work yourself. It doesn’t matter what you make, but go make something. And when you finish, think about how to make it better and try again. This is the only thing that will make you more creative: the practice of making things. And only then can what you learn from books matter.

28 Responses to “The 5 best books on Innovation EVER”

  1. deb louison lavoy (@deb_lavoy)

    our high school science teacher showed us the connections series which changed my view of the world. i look forward to checking out your other recommendations.

    Reply
    1. Jason Githeko

      This is an interesting list. But where do ideas come from? If madness is within the scope of innovation,I would add Number 6: The Holy Bible!! I may not be able to explain why in this media but this ancient book is full of jewels! Dismiss it at your own risk.
      I will look up the five books though in this country in which I live it may be a challenge to get ’em books

      Reply
  2. Anand

    I’ve read your myths of innovation – it was a great launch-pad for me into the topic of innovation, and got me hooked into it. Thanks a lot for that!

    Two things I noticed both in this post and the book…

    The ranked bibliography is indeed a cool and a novel concept. It’s useful, quite. My first question is around the concept of bibliography – not necessarily ranked one. Do authors ‘really’ go through all these books while/before they set out writing the book? I can’t even begin to read 5 of them and I feel so bad about that! (perhaps that also explains why I couldn’t do much like what you do). But, still I want to know the real answer – from you.

    one more thing. I think I didn’t notice all of the 5 books you refer to in this post, in the book’s bibliography. How is that possible? Is it omission?

    and, one of the books Brain rules has been referred to in the book, but not in the bibiliography.

    So, summarizing my question, it is this. Is bibliography real and true? Is it only there, because all books have it?

    I know, this question is perhaps really uncomfortable for you to answer. But, I would like to see a reply from you in private, perphaps?

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      I’ve read many books related to Creativity over the course of my life. For the ranked bibliography, I could only include the books I kept detailed notes for, which were mostly the books I read during the year I wrote Myths. I did also include an annotated bibliography in Myths, which describes the books I recommended and referenced independent of where they scored in the ranking (or I believe in some cases, even if they weren’t listed at all)

      Reply
    2. Amateur Innovator

      You mentioned those 3 skills many so called successful innovators all have. After peering at myself for quite a long time, I realized I have the first, but not the second nor third due to resources and the higher risks of being an entrepreneurial teenager. Do you have book suggestions that could help me begin on the last two? Thank you if you can find me any.

      Reply
  3. Gordon

    Not all of the best books on innovation are old. Everyone should read Roberto Verganti’s excellent book from 2009, “Design Driven Innovation – Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating what Things Mean.” which shows how companies like Apple, Swatch, and Fiat have innovated by changing the meaning of things.

    Reply
  4. Tim Z.

    I can’t wait to start reading some of these books. Truly though, “create and learn”, you cannot get a more precise definition of innovation than that. Thank you again for your excellent commentary, there are some out there you are really helping in this world, Thank You

    Reply
    1. Ahmed

      I’ m fed up innovation thiefs who hide my invention to foil.tranformative tech scienfic brought, is surprises that I’m familiar with. My professor bring me iphone 5 said to me, weaponize this if you are technologies?. Every thing man made have dual use , no matter how unseemingly related. But cleaver mind can turn these around.

      Reply
      1. Amateur Innovator

        UMMM….What are you tryng to say Ahmed? I cant tell what your trying to say. It is sooo messy!

        Reply
  5. STeve

    Good list, I didn’t know Van Gogh wrote a book. In any event, I’ve found science magazines to be valuable when trying to think up new stuff and they usually have good lists of new books to read.

    Reply
  6. Vivek

    Re book #5:

    You wrote, “While it’s not strictly about creativity, show me a creative person who didn’t use their brain well..”.

    Well, you will find that creativity best happens when the “person” that “uses” the brain is absent! The brain is a powerhouse in itself – not only creativity but also the meaning of life and our connection to the Universe. It is the “me” or the “person” we think we are (I the Ego) is the problem. Creativity happens when people stop trying to create anything.

    Brain, indeed rules; but only when ego and thoughts depart. Now, do not start telling that it is the brain that thinks. It does not. Mind thinks. Brain is the grey matter. Mind is just a thinking sensation over brain cells that makes a person think that “he” or “she” is running the show.

    Hope it makes sense.

    Vivek

    Reply
    1. Gustaf A

      Hi Vivek

      I want to kindly disagree with this statement:
      “Creativity happens when people stop trying to create anything.”

      I’m nowhere near a professional innovator or so but my experience in school with projects about product development and innovation makes me strongly believe that creativity does not simply happen. It and great ideas are in my world achieved through hard thinking labor or/and the habit of constantly exploring possibilities. Sure, it may sometimes seem that the ideas just pops up, but I would not agree with the statement that it is when we stop trying that ideas come. More accurately what you’re describing is perhaps the connection of dots (ideas, knowledge, hunches) that more freely can happen when we’re not limiting ourselves to the specific area which we are thinking in.

      Regards
      Gustaf – product development and design student extremely fascinated by idea generation.

      Reply
  7. Ravi Warrier

    Hi Scott, will work on getting my hands and eyes on these books (I already have Brain Rules, so it’s just the matter of reading it). Thanks for the list. Now to why I am writing and I’ll keep it short:

    1. A book that I loved on Innovation (I still haven’t read yours) is Tom Kelley’s The Art of Innovation. And I love it because, though innovation is individual, his book talks about the organizational mindset and culture that are equally important to foster creativity and innovation.

    2. This comment is misplaced and I apologize in advance for it. But, in my defense, I found no online post of “Why this World is a Mess: A Theory” (the essay I finished reading in MindFire). My take is this:

    The world would be a better place even if all the people were deaf or blind (or illiterate or uneducated, depending on how “read” is implied). The world of animals is not a mess, even though they don’t “listen” or “read”.

    My theory about why the world is so messed up is because people think they “think” but actually aren’t even giving their neurons a sweat. If only people really “thought” before they acted or reacted, the world wouldn’t be so messy. Don’t you think?

    Take care. Happy New Year.

    Ravi Warrier
    @raviwarrier

    Reply
  8. Kushal Jirafe

    You can please consider reading the below book on Innovation.
    Its a wonderful book which focuses on different aspects of innovation in our industry.

    “Innovation – Growth Engine for Nation – Nice Buzzword but Often Misunderstood”, by Shroff Publication. Released on 7 Dec 2014

    Please go to the below URL to download it FREE:
    http://www.dharaskar.com/innovation-book-6.html

    Thanks,
    Kushal Jirafe
    Student of Dr. Rajiv Dharaskar

    Reply
  9. Gal

    I agree with the books above. However, I think that you should add some of the Christensen books which are very interesting and important for any innovator. Also, I believe that in order to learn innovation you should understand some of the real life examples and their origins and therefore would suggest to read some of the biographies of the great innovators in our time.
    If you are interested to see my list of great books please check it on my blog and let me know if you agree:
    http://www.galsinsights.com/top-10-innovation-books/

    Reply
  10. Mariella Remund

    It is so refreshing to read this post! Two things come to my mind:
    – first of all the appreciation for “old” traditional seminal books on innovation! Bravo! yes, innovation and creativity are old!
    – thank you for including Vincent Van Gogh letters to his brother in the list. My point on innovation and entrepreneurship is that the entrepreneur today must be at the crossroad between biz – technology and art.

    Reply
  11. Tom

    Thanks for the useful list. I’m going to download some of these to read. Thanks again

    Reply

Pingbacks

  1. I’ve recently read Steve Jobs’ biography and The Innovator’s Dilemma. What should I read next?…

    Since you are on the theme of innovation, I concur a natural extension of the Innovator’s Dilemma is the Innovator’s solution. I found a good list from an author on innovation named Scott Berkun, who has written three books-one is which is on my list…

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