Innovate Much?

By Jeff Terry

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Nearly all our clients seek to innovate and improve. Some seek strategic transformation; others new tactics to get 1% better. In all cases, innovation is a team sport that requires vision, focus and a commitment to learning. To get started, teams often need a common framework from which to explore the topic of innovation and the nature of innovating. With that in mind, here are my current favorite books on innovation:

  1. The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelly describes different styles with which people innovate. Along the way, he reminds us of the nature of innovation with passages like: "most organizations have no shortage of problem solvers. The challenge is that they don't know what problem to solve." The "ten faces" in the title refers to ten different approaches to innovation and read almost as personality types. For example, "the anthropologist", the "cross-pollinator" and the "caregiver."

    This is usually the first book we recommend to healthcare leaders working to raise the innovation IQ of their hospital. That's because TFOI reminds us that great innovation comes in different packages. As leaders, we must be conscious to foster diversity within our teams.
  2. Defence of Duffer's Drift by E.D. Swinton. Heralded as the most popular book in the world for training military officers, DODD describes a young British officer and his unit's mission during the Boer War to hold a piece of ground for a few days in order to prevent the Boers from flanking a British column. The book is structured as a series of dreams in which the young officer attempts the same mission day after day. In each dream he loses the fight and wakes up the next day with the same challenge... with one exception: he retains the lessons of each defeat and applies them the next day.
    The young officer begins, as most innovators do, with a series of well-intentioned mistakes. For example, in the first dream he allows his soldiers to rest rather than prepare the defense. When they are overrun that night he learns a basic lesson: soldiers would rather be alive than rested. From that first lesson, the unit improves every aspect of their defense and eventually wins. This, of course, makes it a story of successful innovation.
  3. Beautiful Evidence by Edward Tufte. I am a big fan of Mr. Tufte. He writes and speaks about the visual representation of quantitative information (aka "a picture speaks a thousand words"). For example, in this book Mr. Tufte highlights what he describes as "the greatest visualization of the 19th century", Charles Minard's 1869 "super- graphic" to illustrate Napoleon's failed invasion of Russia in 1812 and 1813.

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    The purpose of the graphic was to communicate to a later generation the magnitude of loss of life in war. How to do so thoroughly and quickly in order to win and keep the attention of his audience? Minard accomplished this with two lines superimposed over a map: a brown line to track the invasion and a black line for the subsequent retreat. Here's the brilliant part: the thickness of the lines represents the number of soldiers in the army at that point in the invasion. As the lines brutally convey, Napoleon left France with an army of 422,000 and returned with only 10,000 soldiers. With the shock that follows this realization, the reader is drawn into the map and begins to explore the rich information within. That's what makes it a super graphic.

    In Beautiful Evidence, Tufte shares example after example of this type of innovative genius in the presentation of ideas and information.

That's my admittedly short and imperfect list. I would love your comments regarding books and techniques that you've used to spark innovation in your teams.


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