One of the best books on organizational creativity and product development is, unquestionably,Wellsprings of Knowledge: Building and Sustaining the Sources of Innovation by Dorothy Leonard-Barton (Harvard Business School Press; 1995). There is hardly a chapter in the book that doesn’t have a provocative observation of the highest caliber, like: “Managers need to expose their companies to a bombardment of new ideas from outside in order to challenge their core rigidities, encourage inventive serendipity, and check technological trajectories for vector and speed versus competitors” and “An idea becomes reality when espoused by someone unafraid to turn heretic against predominate technology or company culture.” These statements—and an array similarly charged—have tremendous stopping power: You’re halted, having to think about what she’s writing. And with “core rigidities” instead of the more common “core competencies” and the image of only a heretic being able to stand up to the prevailing dogma, it is evident that the author has spent a lot of time with people who understand innovation within institutional constraints.
So it was with a sense of ready anticipation that I received When Sparks Fly: Igniting Creativity In Groups by Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap (Harvard Business School Press; 242 pp.; $24.95). And it is with great disappointment that I observe that Sparks is no Wellsprings. It reminds me of one of those “Dummies” books that are found in bookstores and airport shops alike. In fact, the authors write in their preface, “Our objective was to write a book that you could pick up in the airport, read during a couple hours’ flight, and deplane at a new mental as well as physical destination.” That mental destination might be the result of daydreaming likely to occur because the text is not particularly engaging. In their efforts to be non-academic, they have resorted to devices like fictional vignettes, a form of writing best not taken by those essaying business practices who want to be taken seriously.
In Wellsprings, many of us were introduced to Jerry Hirshberg of Nissan Design International. Since Wellsprings was published, Hirshberg, in addition to becoming one of the few (if not the only) automotive designers to appear in national TV commercials, wrote The Creative Priority: Driving Innovative Business in the Real World. Sparks is so dependent on Hirshberg that it seems to me you should skip the secondary rendition and go straight to the source.