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Book Interview: Scott D Anthony

We all know that in today's cutthroat markets we need to innovate our design, manufacturing and management processes. Scott D Anthony's new book sets about finding out exactly how to do that. 

If any of us really wanted to we could read a new book on innovation every week for the foreseeable future. Innovation is the latest big topic in management, and the message is clear: if you don't innovate you're one of yesterday's people.

The road to success, we are told, is only guaranteed by innovation. Unfortunately, there are as many definitions of the : word as there are books on the topic. So it is something of a relief that Scott D Anthony has made a valiant attempt to round up and simplify current thinking on the subject and present it in 'The Little Black Book of Innovation'.

Anthony is no novice when it comes to innovation, having divided his career between advising governments and corporates on the subject and writing books about it, including 'The Innovator's Guide to Growth', 'Seeing What's Next' and 'The Silver Lining'. Having delivered a quarter of a million words on the subject of innovation, he can feel justified in believing that he's getting close to a definition.

The first thing that strikes the reader about 'The Little Black Book' is its curious cover. In fact it is a cover within a cover, where an official-looking black leather bound tome is photographed against the red background of the actual cover. It's a neat idea that places you right in the middle of the concept. It's also eye-catching, which is a useful characteristic for a book about to be launched into a crowded market.

Anthony makes no apology for adding another to the reviewer's 'to read' pile. "My basic belief is that everyone – individual and corporation – has this huge reservoir of untapped innovation potential." He says that the frustrating thing about innovations is that "so much is known about it, but there's still so much waste". His conclusion is that innovation knowledge is locked up in relatively dense books or in people's heads. And so his intention was to make the innovation literature more accessible, so that he could help his readers realise their full potential.

To try to make this work, Anthony has adopted a "simple is best" strategy. In fact, he stresses that the key differentiating factor for 'The Little Black Book' is its simplicity. "It is also a bit of a mash-up of my personal journey, a review of the academic literature, and a practitioner's guide." He hopes that readers will gain three main experiences: A more robust language system around innovation, practical ideas that they can put to work immediately, and increased confidence that they can in fact master innovation.

But before you can master it, you need to know what it is. "I tried to define innovation as simply as possible. That simple definition highlights two innovation myths." The first is that the natural habitat for innovation is the laboratory, and is the job of white-coated scientists. "R&D has a major role to play in innovation,' says Anthony, "but so too do marketers, strategists, process engineers, lawyers, and on and on and on'"

The second myth is that innovation involves merely upping the spec of a product or process. But, as Anthony points out, some of the highest-impact innovations win through simplification.

Before we run away with the idea that all Anthony has done is to spend nearly 300 pages hammering on about keeping things simple, there is also his analysis of why innovation is critical to consider. "Innovation is critical given the breakneck pace of change in the global economy. The best way to sum this up is to look at the turnover of companies in the S&P 500 index. The size of the companies on the index would suggest that it should be relatively stable, but research by my colleague Dick Foster suggests that turnover is increasing drastically. His projections suggest that 75 per cent of the companies in the S&P 500 in 15 years will not be on the index today."

Creating opportunities

The answer appears to be obvious. If you want to be in the upper quartile in 2025 you need to do something innovative. But not every company has access to the kind of innovation opportunities, budgets and talent as Apple. "Of course we can't all be Steve Jobs. But the way I think about this is to look at bicycle racing. Just about everyone can learn how to ride a bike. Not everyone can win the Tour de France. But the research shows that about two-thirds of an individual's innovation capacity is developed, not inherited. So with hard work just about anyone can be a very solid innovator."

This last statement is really what the core of 'The Little Black Book' is about. You become a "very solid innovator" by learning what not to do and then forming new habits that allow creativity. Anthony's 'Seven Deadly Sins' are in fact the real capital vices of Christian ethics: pride, sloth, gluttony, lust, envy, wrath and greed. Master these and you're in the market for serious improvement, and Anthony's list has the benefit of being memorable.

"Every time I do a presentation I'm trying out an idea or two to see if it helps to communicate a key concept. I had been ending my talks for a while by summarising key lessons, but I thought, 'What if I talked about the big things people should watch out for?' There were seven things on my list, and the rest kind of wrote itself. Analogies can be really helpful ways to cement concepts in people's brains."

Once cleansed of the vices of innovation you are ready to grow into a "very solid innovator". The interesting thing is that it doesn't particularly matter if you don't consider yourself to be innately innovative. To a point this is an acquired skill and by following the Anthony's 28-day plan you will acquire it. This may sound like business evangelism, but the plan is rooted in the idea that if we can change our habits and the way we think we can change the type of outcomes we achieve. I tell Anthony of my scepticism about this. "Try it out and let me know! Go back to the analogy of riding a bike. You can read about it all you want, but until you spend a few weeks practising, you won't make much progress. 28 days is about the length of time it takes for habits to form." 

'The Little Black Book of Innovation' by Scott D Anthony is published by Harvard Business Review Press, £16.99

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