New books on innovation

Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn reviews two forthcoming books on innovation in the New York Times:

In “Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation” (Riverhead, $26.95), Steven Johnson focuses on what he calls “the space of innovation.” Some environments, he writes, “squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly.”

As examples of innovative environments, the book — to be released early next month — offers the city and the Internet. Mr. Johnson, who has written several books on the intersection of science, technology and society, uses these innovation engines as a backdrop to analyze a “series of shared properties and patterns” that “recur again and again in unusually fertile environments.”

These seven patterns are the main dish of this rich, integrated and often sparkling book. They include the power of the slow hunch and the role of serendipity, error and inventive borrowing. The more that these patterns are embraced, the author argues, “the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking.”

In “The Innovator’s Way: Essential Practices for Successful Innovation” (MIT $29.95), to be published this month, Peter J. Denning and Robert Dunham approach innovation from the more traditional perspective of individual and group action. …

Defining innovation as “the adoption of new practice in a community,” Professor Denning and Mr. Durham lay out eight practices they deem vital to success: sensing, envisioning, offering, adopting, sustaining, executing, leading and embodying.

For each practice, the authors explain its essence, its relationship to specific instances of effective innovation and the pitfalls one is likely to encounter in undertaking the recommended actions. They also include some homework: what to practice for each set of skills.

The book is very much a hands-on guide. Its frame is innovation, but, on a deeper level, it is concerned with effective leadership, specifically how people create and sustain change in groups.

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