Five Thinkers That I Admire

I was talking with one of my PhD students last week and he saw that I was reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.  He asked me what I thought of it, and if I had read anything else that was good recently.  I wasn’t very far into the book at that point, but now that I’ve finished it I’m ready to say that it’s great.  And you should read it too.

I ended up reflecting on some other excellent books that I’ve read recently, and I thought I’d share some thoughts on five thinkers that I admire.

Sheryl Sandberg

Since Lean In triggered this line of thought, I’ll start with Sheryl Sandberg.  The book is terrific.  It’s not a comfortable read, because it confronts the fact that we still face serious gender issues in both our work and personal lives.  While there are important institutional factors that contribute to this, Sandberg focuses on steps that we can take as individuals to address these issues.

Her TED talk summarises some of the key points from the book:

Here is what I really like about Sandberg’s approach here: she has an almost perfect mix of stories and data.  The book is highly data-driven, which is something that I always look for (and too often fail to find).  But for every statistic, Sandberg has a story that illustrates.  It’s a killer combination.

Yes, there are arguable points in the book, but it raises enormously important issues, which we need to be talking about. From an innovation standpoint, I think we’ll all be better off if we’re getting great ideas executed by everyone, regardless of gender, race, or country of origin.

Nilofer Merchant

Second on my list is Nilofer Merchant.  Yes, I’m biased, but I think she’s doing consistently excellent work.  I had a session on innovation with nine small-business CEO’s on Friday.  When I asked them what problems they faced, several of them had issues with embedding a culture of innovation throughout their firm.  They were describing an air sandwich.

That’s an idea from Nilofer’s first book The New How – that strategy fails because there is a gap between top-level managers, who have the vision of where they want to go, and the front-line people who understand where the real problems and opportunities lie.  The New How talks about how to bridge that gap so that there is a shared purpose within firms.  It’s a really important issue, and an under-rated book.

Nilofer is doing excellent work, with important applications.

Brene Brown

Nilofer tipped me onto the work of thinker number three – Brene Brown.  Her book Daring Greatly is one of my recent favourites.  One of the quotes in Sandberg’s book is “what would you do if you weren’t afraid?”  Brown’s research addresses precisely this point – that when we’re afraid, we prevent ourselves from accomplishing what we’re capable of.

Her solution is that we need to be vulnerable to reach our goals.  I believe that we do need to be vulnerable to innovate.

While I enjoy Brown’s work, and it resonates with me, I admire the work because it is based on some of the most careful research that I’ve run across.  It’s case-based, and the number of people that she interviewed is staggering – many quantitative studies have far fewer data points than her work does.  That in itself is great, but the other reason that I admire Brown’s work is that she changed her mind.

That’s what great scientists do when they run across data that doesn’t fit with their original hypotheses – they change their mind.  Sadly, this doesn’t always happen.  Brown is a great scientist.

Edith Penrose

I was talking about Edith Penrose with a couple of colleagues recently, and discovered that all of us regularly re-read her classic book The Theory of the Growth of the Firm.  Penrose has been one of my intellectual heroes from the early days of my research career.


Here is what I said about her for the first Ada Lovelace Day:

Here is what she set out to do in the book:

So far as I know, no economist has as yet attempted a general theory of the growth of firms. This seems to me so very strange that I am sure anyone attempting it should indeed watch his (or her) step, for naturally there is always a good reason for what economists do or do not do. Perhaps such a theory is impossible to construct, unnecessary, trivial, or outside the ale of economics proper. I do not know, but I offer this study in the hope that all four possibilities will be rejected.

Penrose succeeds admirably in rejecting those four possibilities. It is a beautifully constructed study, and a wonderful book to read. It’s been cited over 10,000 times, although her ideas are often mangled so sometimes I wonder how many times it’s actually been read. In any case, her key thoughts have formed an important part of the development of evolutionary economic thought. She builds on many of Schumpeter’s ideas, and in turn, her ideas contributed to great subsequent work like A Behavioral Theory of the Firm by Cyert and March and An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change by Nelson and Winter.

Here is a brief statement that encapsulates the key points in her approach:

One of the primary assumptions of the theory of the growth of firms is that ‘history matters’; growth is essentially an evolutionary process and based on the cumulative growth of collective knowledge, in the context of a purposive firm.

Those are some of the key ideas that have driven evolutionary economics ever since. Edith Penrose conducted beautiful research. She developed important ideas based on deep observation and understanding of firms. Even though she’s been widely cited, I still think she’s a bit under-appreciated. If you have any interest in how firms grow, you owe it to yourself to read her book. The idea that firms grow through the growth of knowledge is a strong argument for experimenting, data gathering and innovation as key functions within organisations.

Rebecca Stott

The fifth thinker that has posed interesting questions for me is Rebecca Stott.  She writes both non-fiction and fiction, all with a strong focus on science.  I recently finished her novel Ghostwalk.

The book is a gripping mystery set in Cambridge, and bouncing back and forth between the present and the time when Isaac Newton was there.  Here is a quote that sums up the main issue that Stott is tackling:

Look. You forget. As a neuroscientist I’m up against the edge of what’s known all the time. Every new thing we map or understand brings a whole new set of unknowns with it. Science is really unsettling. Take quantum mechanics. The theory was so weird that Schrödinger, one of the founders, famously said, “I don’t like it and I’m sorry I had anything to do with it.” In the quantum world particles can be in two places at once, they disappear for no reason, and even act differently depending on whether we’re watching them or not.’

Yep, it’s a novel exploring quantum entanglement.  That might not do much for you, but I absolutely loved it!  It’s one of the most thought-provoking novels that I’ve read recently, and another in the recent string of great books.

One of the key drivers of innovation is connecting ideas in novel ways.  To get really good ideas it’s useful to explore widely.  Encountering great thinkers is one great way to spur this process.

I think you should check out these five, and if you have thinkers that you admire, please let me know – I’m always looking for more!

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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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5 thoughts on “Five Thinkers That I Admire

  1. This list brings to mind one of my favourite thinkers, Cordelia Fine, and her book ” Delusions of Gender”. She critically evaluates much of the research on gender brain differences and provides enormous insight into gender role stereotypes still prevalent in our world. It’s my number one recommended read for anyone interested in increasing women’s representation in under-represented fields.

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