The best books for understanding how breakthrough innovation happens

Rita Gunther McGrath Author Of Discovery-Driven Growth: A Breakthrough Process to Reduce Risk and Seize Opportunity
By Rita Gunther McGrath

Who am I?

When I first started in the field of strategy, all the cool kids were doing industry-level analysis. Order of entry, strategic groups, R&D intensity…anything you could get sufficient data about to run complex models was the order of the day. Those of us studying the ‘insides’ of corporations, particularly the process of innovation, were kind of huddled together for warmth! Today, strategy and innovation have come together in a remarkable way, but I find that most people still don’t understand the processes. One of my goals is to de-mystify the innovation process – these books will give you a great start in understanding the practices that are too bewildering for too many people.  


I wrote...

Discovery-Driven Growth: A Breakthrough Process to Reduce Risk and Seize Opportunity

By Rita Gunther McGrath, Ian C. Macmillan,

Book cover of Discovery-Driven Growth: A Breakthrough Process to Reduce Risk and Seize Opportunity

What is my book about?

It’s a secret hiding in plain sight! There is a predictable, repeatable path to creating growth in high uncertainty situations, but most leaders don’t know about it. This book unlocks the mystery for you.  

In Discovery-Driven Growth, we show how companies can plan and pursue an aggressive growth agenda with confidence. By carefully framing their strategic growth opportunities, testing each project assumption against a series of checkpoints, and creating a culture that acts on evidence and learning instead of blind stumbling, companies can better control their costs, minimize surprises, and know when to disengage from questionable projects—before it's too late.

The books I picked & why

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Loonshots: Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries

By Safi Bahcall,

Book cover of Loonshots: Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries

Why this book?

This book tackles a core paradox of breakthrough innovations – that they often start in the mind of an ignored, discredited, and dismissed person. That person needs just enough resources to tinker with the idea for long enough that its potential can be realized. But to have a truly transformational impact, the idea has to go beyond just one person’s or a small team’s understanding to be embraced by a large number of champions and users. The book is an utterly delightful read, with innovations as varied as the steam engine and advanced biotech receiving Safi’s witty and knowledgeable touch.  


Innovation: The Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want

By Curtis R. Carlson, William W. Wilmot,

Book cover of Innovation: The Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want

Why this book?

Carlson and Wilmot know whereof they speak when it comes to innovation. Using a methodology honed over a great deal of practice, their company SRI International, created many of the artifacts of modern life that we take utterly for granted, such as the computer mouse, high-definition television, innovations in banking and of course Siri, the voice enabled personal assistant that comes with iPhones. In this book (and their subsequent publications stemming from it), they lay out a systematic process that turns innovation from a haphazard process to a reliable capability.  


Winning the Right Game: How to Disrupt, Defend, and Deliver in a Changing World

By Ron Adner,

Book cover of Winning the Right Game: How to Disrupt, Defend, and Deliver in a Changing World

Why this book?

Just as no man is an island, today no company is, either. An ecosystem approach to strategy leads one to make entirely different choices about how to engage, when to compete, and which capabilities to build than you would make without such a perspective. The book engagingly opens with a retelling of the well-worn Kodak story, with a twist – it wasn’t that Kodak didn’t “get” digital, it's that they doubled down on printing when screens were getting good enough to make printing irrelevant. In its chapters, you’ll learn about how a mapping company survived when its competitors gave away its product for free; how Amazon got its Echo technology to be adopted as a standard by other organizations and how a clearly promising new ecosystem can be stillborn when its champions don’t play nicely together. 


Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

By Ed Catmull, Amy Wallace,

Book cover of Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Why this book?

Ed Catmull, together with his partner, George Lucas, completely changed the nature of animation with the founding of Pixar Animation Studios. This book outlines the philosophy and management practices that allowed Pixar to achieve unprecedented levels of success with its productions by shaking up traditional norms in the movie business. Sterling bits of advice include: It’s not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It’s the manager’s job to make it safe for others to take them; the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them; and a company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.


The Imagination Machine: How to Spark New Ideas and Create Your Company's Future

By Martin Reeves, Jack Fuller,

Book cover of The Imagination Machine: How to Spark New Ideas and Create Your Company's Future

Why this book?

This unusually formatted and provocative book delivers on its promise, which is that harnessing human imagination is a predictable, replicable process. Beginning with the first seeds of what gets our imaginations going (hint: when things aren’t chugging along as expected) to a recipe for how not to let those sparks die out as an idea becomes more mainstream, the book is chock full of examples, anecdotes, how to’s and more. And one of my favorite aspects of it is that it also has a multimedia guide to what BCG calls the “napkin gallery,” a virtual museum devoted to the earliest instances of some of the most important inventions ever commercialized.   


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