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Making the links


This week, a new book from Clayton Christensen prompts some thoughts about gurus and the links between things...

For the last couple of years, I’ve been studying for a degree and so a lot of my reading material has consisted of text books related to my course.  A final exam aside, I finished my studies this week, which gives me the chance to pick up something different, for a change.  One type of book I enjoy reading is business books, although I generally find that most of what they have to say is contained in the first twenty or so pages, while the rest of the book consists of repeating those points in ever greater detail.

There are a plethora of business books on the shelves - walk into any Waterstones bookshop and you’ll see at least a bookcase full of them.  There are books about any aspect of business that you can think of, from worthy and weighty text-books (Buchanan and Huczynski’s Organisational Behaviour is my personal favourite) through to the more frivolous end of the scale, with Dilbert always finding a welcome audience in me.  Somewhere on that scale, you’ll find books from an increasing number of business gurus.

I’m skeptical about gurus.  Some seem to me to be little more than sophisticated “snake oil” salesmen - I’m thinking in particular of Tom Peters, whose career appears to consist largely of getting things wrong and shouting loudly to cover that fact up.  Others come with a weight of business (and personal) baggage that makes them harder to follow but who are worth paying attention to, nonetheless - Jack Welch, for instance, who seems to have undergone some kind of conversion over the last few years.

Some gurus I’ve grown to trust, over the years. Peter Drucker was always worth reading; nowadays, anything from a Covey will have my attention, as will anything from Charles Handy.  Another interesting character is Clayton Christensen, who has a new book out shortly.  If you’ve not heard of him before, Christiansen is particularly interested in innovation and the way in which managers think. I first came in contact with his ideas when I read about his concept of “the job to be done” that customers want products to do. His website contains a useful introduction to his ideas and I recommend you check it out.

His new book, The Innovator’s DNA, tries to understand how it is that successful innovators think and how companies can learn from them.  He has identified five habits of mind that characterize great innovators. Some are fairly obvious - great innovators experiment, you may not be surprised to find - but one stood out to me. Great innovators associate - the excel at connecting disparate and seemingly unconnected things. They make links and, in the process, create new and innovative ideas.

Of course, in order to make links and associations, you need to expose yourself to a variety of different contexts and ideas; you have to be open to different influences and to the possibility that your way of doing things isn’t the only way. It means reading outside of your field, taking a break, stepping back, changing the way you see things.  Perhaps part of that involves putting down the business books and reading something else, instead.

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