As the holiday season in the US gets underway, I habitually look back on what I’ve learnt over the previous year. An important part of that is always what I’ve read, and in the festive spirit of sharing, here are five books that greatly influenced me in 2019. None are strictly ‘Innovation books’. Instead they contain insights that I think are pertinent to innovation and innovators. Only three of them actually published in 2019. Instead one is from 2018 and one from 2017, but I’m sharing them this year because I personally only got around to reading them in 2019. So they were new for me, at least! And if anyone has suggestions for any additional new books, please let me know. Books not only make excellent stocking stuffers, but are also critical sanity tools for me over this holiday period – invaluable for killing time at airports, or simply for providing a little quiet ‘bah humbug’ time away from family and holiday celebrations.
1. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein. From a relatively narrow perspective of innovation, this was my favorite book of the year. This choice will be no real surprise to anyone who knows me, as it is the confirmation bias incarnate. I’ve always believed breadth is at least as important as specialization for innovators, and this book tackles exactly that topic. But it does so with great skill. There is something very satisfying about someone expressing your own long held beliefs, but doing so far more eloquently, and with better examples than you’ve ever mustered yourself.
Starting early and specializing is fashionable, and the 10,000 hour rule has become a popular mantra. Epstein acknowledges that there are indeed skills and careers that benefit from focused, narrow skill building, and he shares the example of golf, and Tiger Woods. But he also argues that there are also many others where too narrow a focus can be a disadvantage, and limit potential to be adaptive. He therefore encourages us to celebrate ‘late developers’ and ‘slow bakers’, and not be too quick to specialize ourselves, or our children. I’d argue that nowhere is this more true than in innovation and creativity. and it’s becoming even more pertinent in a world where technology is changing so rapidly, making over-specialization increasingly risky. From an evolutionary perspective, mammals were more flexible than dinosaurs, and in a world where the rate of change is accelerating at an almost blinding pace, who wants to risk becoming a dinosaur? Even a very efficient and skilled one!
2. The Longevity Economy by Joseph F. Coughlin. OK, I have to declare a vested interest in this one too! I’m 58. That doesn’t feel old to me, and when I look in the mirror in the morning, even my failing eyesight cannot prevent a feeling of resigned disbelief as I stare at an ever increasing topology of lines and wrinkles. But despite appearances, and if I can ignore the mild sciatica, I still feel more like 20 than 50 years old, and that is a key insight of this book. The world is aging, but most of us who are getting ‘old’ don’t feel, or at least don’t act or feel as old as we look. And we are a huge, and often under served, or at least under targeted market for innovation. 20-25% of the population in developed economies is over 65. And this demographic is not only growing, but are also big spenders. In the US, in 2015, spending by people over 50 was 5.6 trillion, whilst the under 50’s spent only 4.9 trillion. But despite this spending power, less than 10% of marketing dollars is targeted at 50 plus. And this is a key data point, as marketing spend is a decent predictor of innovation spend, as we tend to market new stuff. When it comes to innovation, marketing, and consumer research, there is enormous, and I’d argue disproportionate focus on Millennials and younger demographics in general. This is not about Millennial bashing, but about the potentially huge, missed opportunity for innovation with seniors.
And we not only under-target older consumers. Even when products are designed for them, or maybe I should I say us, they often miss the mark. In general, older consumers don’t want products that are obviously targeted at the old, but instead want innovations that help us to feel young. Yes, we have some specific age related needs, and may not always be cutting edge with tech, but most people over 50 don’t want dumbed down, or obviously age targeted products. We want new, cutting edge tech, albeit with the occasional simplified interface.
As a personal example, I recently went to an Aerosmith concert in Vegas. Now, Steve Tyler may be no spring chicken, but the band has maintained appeal with a young as well as more mature audience, and the crowd reflected that mix. From an innovation perspective, the venue was trying out a cool new concert technology: In-ear ‘mixhalo’ personal headphones provided by the venue. This is really cool new technology that enabled some of us in the audience to enjoy the same sound that the musicians hear on stage, fed via wi-fi from the mixing board. This in turn allowed us to stand on the side of the stage with Aerosmith. It’s the best of both worlds, placing us in the middle of the action, whilst still enjoying spectacular front of house sound. The tech, like a lot of new innovation, was a little buggy, and so required us to adjust and correct it throughout the concert. A steepish learning curve, and one that I needed a little help with from a couple of younger audience members on several occasions throughout the concert. But the key for me was that it was flexible and largely age agnostic, and that we could all use it, young and old. Maybe our goals were a little different, and perhaps the older demographic turned the volume down a bit more, or maybe our failing ears made us turn it up louder! But the tech was aimed at all of us, and once the bugs are ironed out, it will be equally usable by young and old, with the latter being an important revenue stream for the concert and entertainment industry. The last thing I wanted was a set of special ‘old man’ headphones, and that’s the key point.
A minor caveat. I didn’t love all of this book. For me it was a bit too anchored in Maslows’s hierarchy. But overall it was really useful in reshaping my thinking about how much time to spend thinking about more mature consumers, as well as changing the way I think about innovating for them.
3. The Case Against Reality. Don Hoffman. This was perhaps my favorite book of the year overall. Full disclosure, I’m biased. Don is a friend, and I’ve been fortunate to have shared many long and fascinating discussions with him about how perception and attention works; how we see, what we see, and perhaps more importantly, what we don’t see. But part of the reason I have spent so much time trying to understand this space is because I believe attention and perception are so critical to innovation. No matter how great an innovation is, it is of little value if people don’t notice it. Don’s book peels back the onion on the science of how this works. And at this detailed level, the insights are often counter-intuitive and driven far more by unconscious mechanisms than we intuitively realize. Daniel Kahneman , Dan Ariely and the Behavioral Science community have helped us understand how human decisions are really made, and the underlying science has taught us so much about designing and marketing innovation. Don, together with authors such as V. S Ramachandran, Charles Spence, Gemma Calvert, Lawrence Rosenblum and Jeremy Wolfe provide similar science based insights into how we physically interact with the world. In this context, I believe visual and perceptual science is the new Behavioral Science. Whether we are designing a new product, package, retail or hospitality space, what we see, smell, touch, and most importantly, notice and pay attention to is critically important. This book does a wonderful job of explaining how these mechanisms work. I personally loved it because it digs even deeper, goes beyond just perception, and starts to explore really fascinating concepts such as consciousness and the nature of reality itself. But even if you only read it for the chapters on visual science and attention, I think it’s a hugely valuable read.
4. Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker. I’m a little embarrassed that it took me a year to get around to reading this 2018 publication. I’m a self confessed Pinkerphile, and love his books on the mind, cognition and language. I’d put off reading this because I’d suspected it would be a bit of a revisit of his previous, and brilliant book, The Better Angels of our Nature. It does continue and expand on that work, but also includes a ton of new data and beautifully reasoned new analysis. The book is optimistic, and it has been criticized for that. But to me most, if not all of Pinker’s analysis and arguments are irrefutable. And he doesn’t claim that we have reached Nirvana. Far from it, instead he places us on a journey, but for the most part, one where we are going in the right general direction. The reason I find the book so useful from an innovation perspective is that his detailed analysis of the past provides the best foundation I’ve yet encountered for predicting the future. As innovators, our job is to create that future, and while trends analysis, and short-term fashions are certainly a part of that process, this is a terrific analysis of the bigger picture. It paints the long-term picture of the world we are innovating into in, and hence provides invaluable context for what and where we should be putting our long-term innovation efforts.
5. Bring Your Brain to Work by Art Markman. I couldn’t close this list without mentioning Art’s new book. Along with Don Hoffman, evolutionary psychologist David Buss, and Behavioral Economics guru Dan Ariely, Art has been one of the big four influences on my thinking. His knowledge of cognitive science, is second to none, and he always does a wonderful job of explaining complex concepts from that field in accessible ways. Insights from psychology and related disciplines (such as perceptual science and behavioral economics), are still under utilized by many employees and employers in the innovation space. This is changing, and we have seen considerable penetration, especially by the behavioral sciences into the business world (and government) over the last five years. Nonetheless, familiarity is far from universal, and there remain many opportunities to increase individual and institutional knowledge. Even where some familiarity exists, I’ve still encountered pervasive illusion of understanding, the lack of deep causal understanding that Art talks about in the manuscript. This book does an excellent job of filling many of those gaps and voids.
And I particularly love his insights on the jazz brain. As a musician, it’s an analogy that naturally appeals to me. Our world is not scripted, and, to paraphrase an old military saying, no plans survive initial contact with the market, management or consumer. But the ability to improvise in the face of ever changing context and information is one of the most important skills an innovator can possess. As innovators, we obviously need to bring our brains to work every day, but deep understanding of improvisation may be one of the most important things we can learn.
So in summary, five books, all of which got me thinking about innovation in a slightly new way. Only time will tell if these will become personal classics like How the Mind Works by Pinker, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, or Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read, and re-read those. But in many ways, innovation is about getting the right mix of new and familiar, and these books were all great sources of new for me this year, and may well become familiar as they are re-read in the future. Happy holidays!
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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete Foley has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him @foley_pete