Must-reads for innovation

Being home more in 2020 meant a little more down time, including more time for books and audio books.

Here are three with connections to the practice of design and innovation that I highly recommend adding to your 2021 reading/listening list. Each was so good that writing about them only makes me want to revisit their great lessons again. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

“Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World” by Adam Grant

First, full disclosure: my crush on Adam Grant is, um, pretty big. I always enjoyed reading his co-authored column with Sheryl Sandberg in the New York Times, His WorkLife podcast is about “making work not suck” – how perfect is that? It makes it to the top of my podcast queue every time.

I’ve had “Originals” on my to-read list for a long time, and I can’t believe it took me this long to get to it (see aforementioned crush). Simply put, this is a one-stop-shop of best practices for driving change by fostering ideas and building psychologically safe and strong teams. Grant’s case studies (from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Ray Dalio, child rearing, and Seinfeld) are powerful examples of how innovation and strong teams take more than mantras and empty statements. It requires commitment and accountability from top to bottom and a culture that encourages these behaviors. I say that because too many organizations expect breakthrough innovation or place big bets on practices like design thinking without taking a hard look beyond the processes and tools to people and culture.

“Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

I have owned this book for a few years, but it didn’t make it to the top of the list until two things happened: 1) Two of my favorite design podcasters (Jonathan Courtney and Jake Knap on their podcast) said it was one of the most important books they’ve ever read and 2) I finally got it on loan as an audiobook from the local library (public libraries… so great!).

We’ve all been in a situation where we know we have an amazing idea or incredibly important information to share but we can’t just get it to resonate or stick. This book is an amazing summary of best practices for effectively communicating ideas for maximum impact. Honestly, these six best practices – simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, stories (they spell the acronym SUCCESS) – are pretty obvious. But in practice, it’s rare that a message is tested with so much rigor. While the application of these factors in marketing and advertising goes without question, applying them to innovation is less common but can have incredible impact.

"You're Not Listening and Why it Matters" by Kate Murphy 

This one came to me by way of the Next Big Idea book club. I am woefully behind on all the books from this subscription. It is fantastic, but I had to put membership on pause because I can’t keep up! But I’m so glad I made room for this one in my suitcase for a pre-world-ending vacation.

Murphy explores how and why we don’t listen to one another and what we can do to combat this behavior. The message is practical for anyone, but for me as a researcher, being a good listener is critical to truly understanding people and finding inspiring insights. Murphy shares much more than the standard “active listening” tips, digging into cultural norms, neuroscience, and how amazingly complex our ears are. The book had special meaning to me as it references the work of Naomi Henderson and the RIVA Training Institute, where I was fortunate to take a couple classes and get an incredible crash course on qualitative methods. It was there that I learned the reasons and methods to avoid asking, “Why?” when conducting research—and how you can get to the real “why” by listening and asking better questions.

Need more for 2021? Here are a few others from my 2020 list that I recommend:

“Upstream: How to Solve Problems Before They Happen” by Dan Heath
 These Heath guys are pretty sharp. This is a great read to highlight the importance of systems thinking.

Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell
You can’t go wrong with Gladwell. If you can, listen to the audio version as the integration of author audio media really makes the book an incredible experience.

“You Look Like a Thing and I Love You” by Janelle Shane
If you’re like me and need a crash course on artificial intelligence and machine learning, this is your book. Accessible and practical, it made me 100 times smarter – and very aware that there is so much more to know.

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