My 10 Favorite Books on Creativity & Innovation

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I’ve written countless (well…I suppose I could count them, but what’s the point?) articles about creativity and innovation. As the leader of an intensely creative team for fifteen years (the team that created and produced Seattle’s legendary comedy TV show Almost Live!), I’ve been a student of creativity and innovation for the better part of my life. As a motivational and leadership speaker, these two different but interrelated topics are always represented in my keynotes and other programs.

The title of this article–My 10 Favorite Books on Creativity & Innovation–is somewhat disingenuous, as there are so many excellent books out there. But people seem to like lists of ten things, so here, in no particular order, we go:

  1. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, by Twyla Tharp. Tharp is one of America’s greatest choreographers, and no stranger to the creative process. In this highly literate–but very readable–book, she takes us through her process of creation. The exercises in the book are good, and while Tharp doesn’t come from the world of business, her examples and anecdotes paint one of the truest pictures of what the creative process really looks–and feels–like.
  2. The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation, by Frans Johansson. This is not a “how-to” book (don’t worry–I’ve got several of them coming up). Instead, it’s a book full of fascinating examples of Johansson’s central idea: that creative ideas occur at the intersection of previously existing–but until now unconnected–ideas. If you ever wanted to know ants helped truck drivers negotiate the Swiss Alps, this is the book for you!
  3. A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative, by Roger von Oech. Okay, this one’s a bit obvious. It’s been one of the books on creativity for years and years. There are those who think it’s a little basic and simplistic, but I disagree. This is a “how-to” (and “how-not-to”) book that is clear, fun to read, and very, very practical! In fact, one Christmas I gave a copy to each member of my already highly creative team. I’m a fan of von Oech’s, and if you want to build a more creative team, this book should be on your shelf.
  4. Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace, by Gordon MacKenzie. This may be the strangest book on this list. Okay, forget “may be.” It is the strangest book on this list. (The title alone should have given you a clue!) For thirty years, MacKenzie worked at Hallmark Cards, where he eventually earned the title of “Creative Paradox.” In this fun, quirky, and brilliant book (many people have cited it as their favorite book on corporate creativity), he explains why the phrase “corporate creativity” is often an oxymoron–and offers a way through the creativity roadblocks that are natural part of corporate bureaucracy.
  5. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, by John Medina. What on earth is a book about the brain, written by a molecular biologist, doing on this list? Well, guess where creative thought comes from? The brain! (Duh.) Medina’s book gives you twelve rules for optimizing your brain. And more than just rules, he gives you nuts and bolts techniques for getting the most out of your noggin. And even if creativity isn’t your thing (although, in my humble but correct opinion, creativity should be everybody’s thing), the tips, techniques, and exercises in this book will help keep your brain active and alert throughout your life.
  6. Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques (2nd Edition), by Michael Michalko. Michalko is one of the superstars in the creativity world. In fact, I could have easily included another book of his, Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius, in this list. But I chose to go with Thinkertoys, partly because I read it first and therefore have a bond with it, and partly because it’s just so damn good! Yes, it’s a book about creativity–but it’s written for the corporate world. Michalko realizes that businesses have to be creative, or else they’ll get left behind. As one reviewer noted, “Thinkertoys is aimed at businesspeople who want to stretch their creative muscles and come up with new and better ideas.” Shouldn’t that be you?
  7. The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice, by Todd Henry. The subtitle of this book says it all: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice. (And if that doesn’t at least get you a little bit curious, you’re not half the person I thought you were.) Most people think creativity is like lightning: unpredictable and blinding, striking seemingly at whim. But when my team and I were producing our TV show, we had to be creative on demand. When I was writing jokes for Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, I had to be creative on demand–every day. I couldn’t wait for lightning to strike. Fortunately, creativity can be accessed on demand. This is the book to help you master that skill.
  8. Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer. Yeah, I know. The guy made up quotes and plagiarized, got caught, got fired, and his book got pulled from the bookshelves. There are places where the book contradicts itself. It relies too heavily on anecdotes. All true. And yet I include it in the list because, 1) I’m a dangerous rebel who likes to stir up trouble, and 2) Lehrer actually gets a lot of stuff right–and it’s fascinating! He takes a scientific approach to creativity, and along the way (mostly through those anecdotes, which I kind of like) provides numerous ways we can increase our own creativity. Plus the cover is really cool.
  9. The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge (Harvard Business Review), by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble. Okay, so you’ve got the Great Idea–the one that’s going to make you famous and propel your company light years ahead of the competition. What do you do now? The truth is that creativity–the idea part–is only the first half of the equation. The second half is the execution. That’s what innovation is all about: bringing those creative ideas into concrete, profitable reality. More than any other book on this list, The Other Side of Innovation is a business book that outlines how an organization can create an “innovation initiative” within the corporate structure.
  10. Best Practices Are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition, by Stephen Shapiro. Much of what you think you know about innovation–and how to make it work for your organization–is wrong. So says Stephen Shapiro. Full disclosure: Stephen is a good friend of mine. He is also one of the most original and perceptive thought leaders that you’re likely to come across in the field of innovation . In fact, he’s another guy who has several books that could have been on this list. This book (another one that every company should have in its library) is at times contrarian and nonintuitive–but its insights and suggestions are pure gold. As Stephen says, “It’s time to innovate the way you innovate.”

So there you have it. Ten books that will entertain, inspire, and challenge you. I firmly believe that creativity is the currency of the 21st century. If you want to prosper in this ever more competitive global marketplace, you need to see creativity as the valuable resource that it is.

Now it’s your turn. What books would you add to this list? Please use the comments section below to share your favorite books on creativity and innovation.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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  • […] To go to my list of 10 Favorite Books on Creativity & Innovation, click here. […]

  • #11. Hatch!: Brainstorming Secrets of a Theme Park Designer by C. McNair Wilson. He is one of the leading voices for creativity in corporate and personal life. His clients run from Chick-fil-A to the Johns-Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. At Disney Imagineering, he worked on design teams for five new theme parks and led the original concept group for the popular Tower of Terror (story inside). Later he designed projects at Universal Studios, Sony, Warner Bros. and continues to consult with more than twenty Disney divisions. His work has taken him to 49 states and over 39 countries. McNair lives in baggage claim in a Colorado airport.

  • Bill Stainton says:

    Thanks, David! I’ve heard of “Hatch,” but haven’t read it yet. It’s now on my list!

  • Alan Iny says:

    Hi Bill – great list; I knew many of these but not all of them and will pick up a couple of more.

    I’d be remiss not to promote my Thinking in New Boxes: it was published last year by Random House and is really about bringing a better understanding of how we think, in a very practical way, to the creative process. I’m confident you and your readers would enjoy it.

  • Bill Stainton says:

    Hey Alan – Thanks…and I’m greatly looking forward to checking out your book!

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