Lessons and Takeaways from The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

The InnovatorsI loved reading The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Age by Walter Isaacson. (I presented my synopsis of this book last Friday at the First Friday Book Synopsis). It is a “history” book, with all sorts of brilliant observations about how innovations come from the collaborative work of innovators, with countless little tweaks in between a few really whopping breakthroughs (what we now call “disruptive technologies” thanks to Clayten Christensen). Mr. Isaacson’s admiration for the people who led us to these breakthroughs came through throughout the book. And I think his preference for Steve Jobs is also apparent. (I earlier presented a synopsis of his book, Steve Jobs, at the Frist Friday Book synopsis).

As I read The Innovators, I told my wife that it had the feel of: “there was never any doubt.” And, of course, because we know the story as it is, up until now, there really wasn’t any doubt. But, I’m sure that there were times when the people involved wondered “will this work?”

Here are just a few quotes/excerpts from the book:

This is the story of these pioneers, hackers, inventors, and entrepreneurs—who they were, how their minds worked, and what made them so creative. The tale of their teamwork is important because we don’t often focus on how central that skill is to innovation.

The Industrial Revolution — Innovators came up with ways to simplify endeavors by breaking them into easy, small tasks that could be accomplished on assembly lines. Then, beginning in the textile industry, inventors found ways to mechanize steps so that they could be performed by machines, many of them powered by steam engines.

Sometimes innovation is a matter of timing. A big idea comes along at just the moment when the technology exists to implement it… the idea of sending a man to the moon was proposed right when the progress of microchips made it possible to put computer guidance systems into the nose cone of a rocket.

One way to look at innovation is as the accumulation of hundreds of small advances, such as counters and punch-card readers… At places like IBM, which specialize in daily improvements made by teams of engineers, this is the preferred way to understand how innovation really happens.

If there is a “formula” for great innovations, it is close to this:

The Need/Problem (we need so many calculations!)

Leads to

Government Involvement (and money!) (especially in wartime)

+ Private Enterprise

(and including Venture Capital)

(with a few “peers freely sharing ideas” — a team of individuals)

And, what’s more important – the idea, or the execution? I think the book makes this case: the idea without execution is not worth much. But the execution of the wrong idea, no matter how well done, is not worth much either. From the book:

As the case of the forgotten Iowa inventor John Atanasoff shows, conception is just the first step. What really matters is execution. Jobs and his team took Xerox’s ideas, improved them, implemented them, and marketed them.

At the end of the book, Mr. Isaacson himself offers his lessons. I’ve added a couple of my own.

So, here are the lessons and takeaways from The Innovators:

#1 — Creativity is a collaborative process. It takes a team! (Beware of those who refuse to, or cannot, share “credit.”) – Our organizations need to facilitate innovation and collaborative processes. The old hierarchical model will no longer work as it once did.
#2 — The Digital Age did not appear from nowhere. It relied on/built on the ideas, and work, of those who came before.
#3 — Physical proximity is beneficial (necessary!).  Working together, physically together, matters!
#4 — It really helps to pair visionaries with operating managers who can execute.
$5 — “Man is a social animal: – The tools are for a social purpose, leading to collaboration.
#6 — Ada was right – “Poetical Science.” – Steve Jobs: “Technology alone is not enough; it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” (and, people who love the arts and humanities should appreciate the beauties of math and physics). – Beauty matters! Design matters!
#7 — Let’s hope for The Age of Symbiosis (humans with machines, working together, in partnership) over The Age of Artificial Intelligence (machines which do not need humans).


Steve Jobs{You will be able to purchase my synopsis of The Innovators soon, at our companion web site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.  My synopsis of Steve Jobs is also available, as are many, many others.  Each synopsis comes with multi-page, comprehensive handouts, and the audio recording of our presentations}.




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