Thematic reading is my DIY approach to self-improvement. Reading a single book on a topic builds breadth, but reading three on that topic adds depth. This recent book binge was a deep dive on innovation. Specifically, the democratization of innovation.

The idea is neither new, nor one of my own invention. Eric von Hippel used the term as the title of his 2005 book, Democratizing Innovation. In fact, his own bibliography cites an article, “Collective Invention”, dating back to 1983.

The Sharing Economy

So, what piqued my interest on the topic now? Chalk it up to the sharing economy. With folks sharing physical assets ranging from extra bedrooms in their homes to car rides, the sharing of intellectual assets seems like a natural extension. Then I wondered, “Does innovation belong to one or to many?”

This theme emerges in The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, by Walter Isaacson. In this hefty, yet readable tome, Isaacson chronicles the history of the digital revolution. He highlights collaboration, beginning with his account of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, where Ada’s famed “notes” complemented Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Isaacson shows his skill as a biographer as he tells stories of the people who created the technologies. He calls the book “a narrative of how they collaborated and why their ability to work as teams made them even more creative.”[1] I think this is a sharing economy in its purest sense — a democratization of innovation.

Choice Over Chance

Isaacson’s theories aside, I asked a second question, “How much of innovation is original?” Weeks later, I was trolling the aisles of Barnes & Noble with that thought all but forgotten. Then, Adam Grant’s Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World beckoned from its perch the display shelf. It was the last copy.

Engaging and highly entertaining, Grant defines originality “not as a fixed trait, but as a free choice.”[2] There is something uplifting about that. His ideas on risk mitigation, idea selection, voice, timing, and use of alliances are tools he offers. In handing us these tools, Grant gives the reader an instruction manual to improve her creativity. It is refreshingly DIY.

[Related: No Woman Ever Made History by 'Playing it Safe']

Rounding out the triad is The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christiansen. Decoding their academic research into laymen terms, they identify the cognitive and behavioral qualities of innovators at the individual and the organizational level. They suggest that innovation can be improved through practice. The skills they list are: associative thinking, questioning, observing, networking and experimenting. “Nurture trumps nature as far as creativity goes.”[3] Like Grant, they argue for choice over chance.

Democratization of Innovation

How did these three titles make it to my thematic reading list? After all, there are many books published on the topic. These three were by authors from various disciplines, and they address a broad audience. Yet, they are unified in one factor: a tone of optimism. (Contrast, for example, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, which I consumed in alternating states of rapt fascination and nagging defeatism. After all, I can’t change my mediocre birthdate, and I certainly can’t find 10,000 hours to become expert at anything beyond blinking.) The three books referenced above, however, are as empowering as they are prescriptive. Collectively, they are a manifesto for the democratization of innovation.

Now that is what I call a sharing economy.

This article originally appeared on 9/14/17 in Sheryl Tierney's blog, On Innovation: Celebrating Forward Thinkers. The blog is a celebration of those innovators, originals and nonconformists who color the way we live, play, and do business.The views expressed here are her own and do not reflect the opinion of her employer or any other organization.

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Sheryl Tierney is an investment professional with two decades of experience as an Equity Analyst. She has been a CFA charterholder since 2001. Besides her professional accomplishments, Sheryl is committed to volunteerism in her community. With a focus on helping women and children, Sheryl has served the New York Junior League, currently volunteers for AWARE NYC, and happily supports the Women’s Venture Fund.Footnotes:

  1. Isaacson, Walter The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2014. Print.
  2. Grant, Adam Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World New York: Penguin Books, 2017. Print.
  3. Dyer, Jeff; Gregersen, Hal; Christensen, Clayton M. The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011. Print.