The Truth about Innovation – Max Mckeown

All the way back in May of this year Max sent me a preview copy of his upcoming book entitled the Truth about Innovation and asked if I’d read it and offer some feedback or write a review. I did read the book and thoroughly enjoyed it but didn’t get around to reviewing it due to a myriad of other commitments – so apologies Max :).

The other day I was watching a documentary about Pixar much of which focused on the culture of Innovation at Pixar. I immediately recalled some things that Max had written in his book, in fact many of the sentiments in the documentary were directly echoed by the observations Max had been making. Feeling somewhat abashed I re-read The Truth about Innovation over the last couple of days and think it’s about time I wrote a (pre)-review (the book is scheduled for release on September 12th according to Amazon).

The book is well written and well researched, Max makes great use of examples from industry to illustrate his fifty or so “Truths” about innovation. For me It’s a great book because it shows that innovation is about keeping our eyes and minds open, and constantly questioning what we know. Max has previously tried to sum up innovation as:

The term innovation may refer to both radical and incremental changes 
in thinking, in things, in processes or in services ...

I’ve always liked this definition, it feels practical without feeling overly idealistic. There was always a danger with this book that in presenting what he thought were his 50 truths about innovation he would fall into the trap of sounding overly idealistic or offering advice that was either vague or not particularly practical. Thankfully this is not the case. What he has written is short, sharp and extremely focused, yet tempered by an honest down to earth style that makes it not only easy to read but also easy to identify with.

Some of truths really hammered home for me because they resonated so much with what we are trying to do at Talis, not just in terms of the technologies we are building but also in terms of the culture we are trying to create and I completely agree with Max when he says in Chapter 31:

Culture is the sum total of the values, beliefs, assumptions, and traditions
of the organization. Culture is established at the time that the company is 
founded and it develops based on the experiences of the people in the 
organization. It is not the same as a neatly typed mission statement and 
cannot be transformed with half-hearted attempts or superficial 
declarations.

There are differences in character, rhythm, preferences, traditions, jokes,
discipline, and priorities between the most successfully innovative 
organizations and the rest. Turning great insights into practical solutions
is the result of what is done and the way it is done. Making the transition
to an innovation culture is difficult because it doesn’t depend on policies 
or processes in isolation.

Max also goes onto differentiate between cultures that encourage innovation and those that discourage innovation, thankfully for me Talis fits squarely in the first column but only because thats where we, as individuals, and as a group, want it to be:

Cultures that encourage innovation Cultures that discourage innovation
Emotionally connected Dispassionately disconnected
Power Sharing Power Hoarding
Visionary & Forward Thinking Tied to routine & past practise
Trusting with minimal rules Controlling and negative
Positive and highly principled Highly financially focused
People identify with leaders Remote managers issue edicts
Customer service obsessed Performance freaks
Thirst for listening and learning Excessive denial psychology
Valued people like the company Best people feel devalued
Decisions are based on merit Hierarchy slows progress

In chapter 25 Max talks about hiring people for how the learn and not what the know. This is critical in my view for any organisation and goes to the heart of innovation, but in my mind its not just about learning new things its about a passionate willingness to want to learn new things, as Tennyson says to strive, to seek, to find or as Max puts it:

Far more important than what a person knows is how the person learns.
What a person knows matters, you want experts, you want knowledge, 
but it should be taken as a given. If the person can’t do the basics then 
you shouldn’t hire them with the expectation that they can. You need 
enough people in the company who can make whatever it is that you 
are trying to sell. The way that people have learned what they know and 
the way they intend learning what they will need to know in the future is 
the difference between candidates. It’s also the difference between companies. 
Learning new things is at the heart of innovation.

I could easily go on for hours but I wont. This is a wonderful book full of practical advice and insights into how some of the most respected organisations in the world have succeeded and failed to be innovative. I thoroughly recommend reading this book.


Click here to buy from Amazon

I’m going to do something I wasn’t intending to originally and that’s to list Max’s fifty-ish truths, because it occurred to me that actually these chapter headings say more about the book and the message that Max is trying to communicate than any short review could:

  • Truth 01: Innovation is new stuff that is useful
  • Truth 02: A beautiful idea is never perfect
  • Truth 03: A crisis is a terrible thing to waste
  • Truth 04: A great innovation deserves a great name
  • Truth 05: A fool can do either, a genius does both
  • Truth 06: All new ideas are made of old ideas
  • Truth 07: Bet small to win big
  • Truth 08: Better to ask forgiveness than permission
  • Truth 09: Creativity is a process not an action
  • Truth 10: Creativity is its own reward
  • Truth 11: Crowds are mad, bad,and advantageous to know
  • Truth 12: Cut innovation some slack
  • Truth 13: Cure apathy by sharing purpose
  • Truth 14: Do what your competition wont
  • Truth 15: Don’t get lost in translation
  • Truth 16: Different structural strokes for different folks
  • Truth 17: Even useless can be useful
  • Truth 18: Every company needs an idea market
  • Truth 19: Everyone can learn to think better
  • Truth 20: Find the buzz that can work for your people
  • Truth 21: Free your children before someone eats them
  • Truth 22: Get your ducks in a row
  • Truth 23: Got to share to get more
  • Truth 24: Hell hath no fury like a talent spurned
  • Truth 25: Hire for how they learn, not what they know
  • Truth 26: How much is the future worth?
  • Truth 27: Ideas are fragile, handle with care
  • Truth 28: Innovate your way out of recession
  • Truth 29: Innovation can be measured
  • Truth 30: Innovation is not everywhere
  • Truth 31: It’s a cultural thing
  • Truth 32: Just enough disunity for progress
  • Truth 33: Leaders get the innovation they deserve
  • Truth 34: Little differences make a big difference
  • Truth 35: Look outside for a bigger brain
  • Truth 36: Madonna knows more than your boss
  • Truth 37: Meeting of minds not mindless meetings
  • Truth 38: Most things will fail, get over it
  • Truth 39: Not all networks are created equal
  • Truth 40: Open spaces, open minds
  • Truth 41: People judge your first, then your ideas
  • Truth 42: Power is originality’s best friend
  • Truth 43: Quick fixes can lead to great innovations
  • Truth 44: Reinventing the wheel is a good thing
  • Truth 45: Second can be better than first
  • Truth 46: Some ideas are easier to swallow
  • Truth 47: Sometimes you have to gamble everything
  • Truth 48: Success is an S-shaped curve
  • Truth 49: The ideal design is the simplest design
  • Truth 50: This is going to hurt
  • Truth 51: Understand change to make progress
  • Truth 52: Welcome to the innovation factory
  • Truth 53: What you know can hurt you
  • Truth 54: Who the hell cares where it was built
  • Truth 55: You can’t control waves so learn to surf!

… I’ve just discovered that the Preview of the Book is available to read on Scribd here for free.

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