Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Reading :: The Innovator's Way

The Innovator's Way: Essential Practices for Successful Innovation
By Peter J. Denning and Robert Dunham

"Innovation means the adoption of an idea or technology into new practices that produce new outcomes," say Denning and Dunham in this book on innovation, meant for entrepreneurs (p.xxiv). They identify an innovation pattern: "The innovator becomes bothered by a disharmony, puzzles over it for a long time, discovers limitations of the current common sense that produce it, proposes a new common sense that generates a solution, and commits to making it happen. We call this the 'prime innovation pattern'" (p.xxv).

But how do you execute this prime innovation pattern? The authors draw from a deep well of experience to describe eight practices: Sensing, Envisioning, Offering, Adopting, Sustaining, Executing, Leading, and Embodying (Ch.5-12). But they also emphasize how to build these practices into the DNA of one's organization by building a culture of innovation and networking (Ch.13-16). Along the way, they draw from sources as diverse as Latour and Weick as well as examples from entrepreneurial organizations.

I'm not planning to start an enterprise. But as someone who's interested in how entrepreneurs work, I found this book useful and illuminating. Denning and Dunham clearly know what they're talking about, and they convey it in a book that is readable without being reductive, detailed without being inaccessible. If you're interested in entrepreneurship, either as a practitioner or as an interested party, I recommend this book.

Reading :: The Evolution of the Book

The Evolution of the Book
By Frederick G. Kilgour

I happened to pick up this book at a used bookstore in Austin. Opening the cover, I saw the name of the previous author written neatly on the front page: Maxine Hairston.

Of course I had to pick it up. After all, it was just a dollar.

It might have been the best dollar I've spent.

The book is as solid as you might expect from a book published at Oxford. Kilgour, a professor of library and information science, has undertaken a complete history not just of the book but of writing, defining "book" broadly as "a storehouse of human knowledge intended for dissemination in the form of an artifact that is portable—or at least transportable—and that contains arrangements of signs that convey information" (p.3). He identifies four transformations of the book over the last 5000 years:

  • the clay tablet (2500 BC-AD 100)
  • the papyrus roll (2000 BC-AD 700)
  • the codex (AD 100)
  • the electronic book ("currently in the process of innovation"—Kilgour published in 1998) (p.4). 
Along with these transformations, Kilgour identifies "three major transformations in method and power application in reproducing the codex":
  • "machine printing from cast type, powered by human muscle (1455-1814)"
  • "nonhuman power driving both presses and typecasting machines (1814-1970)"
  • "computer-driven photocomposition combined with offset printing (1970- )" (p.4)
Kilgour describes a "historical pattern of the book, in which long periods of stability in format alternate with periods of radical change" (p.4). For each of the seven punctuation of equilibria (clay tablet, papyrus roll, codex, printing, steam power, offset printing, and electronic book), he says, "five concurrent elements were necessary: (1) societal need for information; (2) technological knowledge and experience; (3) organizational experience and capability; (4) the capability of integrating a new form into existing information systems; and (5) economic viability" (pp.5-6). In the subsequent chapters, Kilgour examines each of these punctuations in terms of the five elements, providing an unusually comprehensive examination of the different conditions around each punctuation. For instance, he doesn't just look at production tools, he looks at the impact of eyeglasses, the development of silent reading, and the impacts of abbeys and the Protestant Revolution. 

Those who have studied the history of writing will find plenty of familiar work here, including Schmandt-Besserat's scholarship on Sumerian writing and Eisenstein's scholarship on the printing press. But readers will also find broader discussions of inventions, social systems, and economics across the eras. I was intrigued by Kilgour's discussion of the electronic book in Chapter 12, in which he argues that an "e-book device" will be successful when it meets certain conditions—conditions that sound quite similar to the Kindle!

Before closing, let me go on a little side journey regarding annotation. It turns out that Maxine Hairston annotated her books quite closely. Here's one example from the book. Hairston's annotations are written directly on the page, in pencil; mine are in sticky notes in the margins (a habit I picked up from reading books out of the university library).

Hairston's strokes are bold and her underlining is perfectly straight—she probably used a ruler. And she annotated a lot, not just underlining but also summarizing points with terse phrases in the margins. I found it a bit distracting, and had to resist annotating things just because she had annotated them. But it was also useful to see how a master academic annotated her books.

I can't loan everyone my marked-up version of The Evolution of the Book. But I can recommend that everyone buy and read their own copy. It's a well-written, intriguing text full of information and analysis. Pick it up.

Reading :: Resilience

Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back
By Andrew Zolli with Ann Marie Healy

This book will be familiar reading to those who have read similar trade books such as The Tipping Point or The Wisdom of Crowds. We get a set of characteristics, a set of stories illustrating each along with colorful interviews from experts, and a larger story woven through. Writing a book like this is a special skill, I think, and the second author's background as a "playwright, screenwriter, and journalist" positions her well for providing the punch that makes the book read well. Meanwhile, the first author's background as director of PopTech gives him the vision and connections to underpin the book's argument.

That argument, in a nutshell, is that the world is increasingly complex and interconnected, too often through brittle systems that can't handle disruption well. Consequently, we face the prospect of systemic failure, in which small failures cascade and crash the system. In this case, we're talking about large interconnected systems: the environment, the economy, the social order. To resist these shocks, we have to work on resilience.

Resilience is "the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances" (p.7, their italics). In their quest to describe resilience, the authors talk about related concepts such as scaling and swarming (Ch.2), clusters (Ch.3), cooperation (Ch.5), and the new demands of leadership (Ch.8). In the last chapter, Chapter 9, they revive the term "adhocracy" to describe how distributed, resilient organizations work. (It's this term that brought the book onto my radar, although I think the authors don't differentiate enough between the single-organization adhocracy that Mintzberg was describing and the temporary project-oriented adhocracies that the authors are trying to describe.)

The book is highly readable. But I was left wanting more—and I think that has more to do with the genre of the book than the authors themselves. Books of this genre gain their force by skipping from one expert to another, one story to another, like flat rocks sent skipping across the surface of a pond. The skipping is what makes the book interesting to lay readers, but it means that we spend all our time on the surface rather than sinking into the subject and deeply exploring it. So I would recommend Resilience as a way to get a big-picture understanding of the changes and dangers of large-scale systems—but at some point the rock has to stop skipping and you have to sink into a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the issues, and at that point, I would suggest reading up on some of the source materials that the authors have cited, such as Mintzberg and Arquilla.