I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s new book, the Innovators. To my surprise, I couldn’t put it down. At 560 pages with over 1000 reference notes covering the period from 1834 to 2014, it is not a casual read. But for this life-long student of computers and collaboration it was a page-turner.
I thought I knew the history of the digital age. After all, my undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering (computer design) and over the years I have been a senior executive in both computer software and hardware startups. It turns out I was wrong…I only knew part of the story. Isaacson’s telling goes way behind the headlines, providing the reader the unique perspective of being a fly on the wall. His historical narrative is packed full of the details, the intrigue, and the passions that drove and continue to drive innovators. It enables the reader to go beyond the facts and to understand the personal stories of the people who created the digital world we live in.
What I hadn’t expected was the extent to which the history of the digital age is a story about collaboration. Starting with the opening paragraph, and woven into the nitty gritty details throughout the book, as Isaacson asserts, “This is the story of the pioneers, hackers, inventors and entrepreneurs—who they were, how their minds worked, and what made them so creative. It’s also a narrative of how they collaborated and why their ability to work as teams made then even more creative.” In other words – to rephrase the book subtitle, a group of collaborators created the digital age.
Nowhere in the book is the critical role collaboration played in the digital revolution more apparent than in the last chapter of the book in which Isaacson highlights what he sees as the “lessons” that can be drawn from the tale. In Isaacson’s words, these include:
First and foremost is that creativity is a collaborative process. Innovation comes from teams more often than from the light bulb moment of lone geniuses
The digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations. The collaboration was not merely among contemporaries, but also between generations
Even though the Internet provides a tool for virtual and distant collaboration…physical proximity is still beneficial
The most successful endeavors in the digital age were those run by leaders who fostered collaboration while also providing a clear vision
Given the role collaboration played in creating the digital age, it came as no surprise to learn the complexities of successful collaboration today’s alliance professionals wrestle with daily are challenges these innovators also needed to address. The most frequently mentioned challenge is the question of who gets credit for creating intellectual property. This surfaced in many specific stories and led Isaacson to stress that:
“Brilliant individuals who cannot collaborate tend to fail.”
Without a doubt, the INNOVATORS is a must read. Isaacson explicitly demonstrates the power of collaboration and the interplay among entrepreneurs, companies and their broader ecosystems is how the big problems facing mankind are solved and how technological wonders are created that will take generations to realize their true power. Look for the great collaborators and you’ll also find the great innovators.