Walter Isaacson tried something different as he was finishing his newest book, “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.”
In the acknowledgements, Isaacson says he turned to crowdsourcing for suggestions and corrections on many of the chapters.
“By using the Internet, I could solicit comments and corrections from thousands of people I didn’t know,” Isaacson writes. “This seemed fitting, because facilitating the collaborative process was one reason the Internet was created.”
“The Innovators” offers other key lessons for today’s digital communicators — content marketers, brand journalists and corporate writers, among them.
Isaacson has been both chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine. His best-selling biographies include “Steve Jobs,” which came out shortly after the Apple genius died in 2011.
“The Innovators” dovetails beautifully with the Jobs bio — and both are beautiful examples of journalistic reporting and writing at its best.
Isaacson says one excerpt was read by 18,200 people the first week he posted it. He received scores of comments and hundreds of emails. And he used them to make changes and additions to his manuscript.
Outsourcing isn’t a new idea, of course, as Isaacson acknowledges. It’s part of the useful fun of social media, and I’ve enjoyed doing it for this blog, for free-lance articles, and on internal communications projects at large corporations. After I spent 20 years in newsrooms, with their constant swirls of collaboration, I still value reaching out to others as part of my communications process.
Ada Lovelace, computer pioneer
Validation from a master is nice. And here are seven more great lessons for all communicators from “The Innovators,” which tells the history of how today’s digital innovations came into being, from programming pioneer Ada Lovelace to more familiar names like Alan Turing, Jobs, Bill Gates and more. It’s a fascinating tale, with each chronologically ordered chapter so rich you could write a separate book on individual players (which, of course, many people have, including Isaacson).
By tracing the history and innovators, Isaacson shows us:
1. Creativity is a collaborative process. “As brilliant as the many inventors of the Internet and computer were, they achieved most of their advances through teamwork.”
2. Collaboration can go from one generation to the next, and on and on. “The digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations.”
3. Physical proximity is beneficial. “There is something special … about meetings in the flesh, which cannot be replicated digitally,” Isaacson writes. He cites Yahoo! CEO Melissa Mayer discouraging the idea of working from home, and others who designed workspaces to encourage random encounters.
“Benjamin Franklin: An American Life”
4. The best leadership teams combine people with complementary styles. Here, Isaacson cites the varying strengths of our country’s Founding Fathers — including Benjamin Franklin, the subject of one of his earlier books.
5. A great team pairs visionaries, who generate ideas, and operating managers, who carry them out. “Visions with execution are hallucinations.” Isaacson cites “lingering historical debate over who most deserves” credit for inventing the electronic digital computer — a lone professor whose machine never fully worked, or a team of three who were able to get their machine operating.
6. Man is a social animal, as Aristotle first noted.
Almost every digital tool, whether designed for it or not, was commandeered by humans for a social purpose. Even the personal computer, which was originally embraced as a tool for individual creativity, inevitably led to the rise of modems, online services, and eventually Facebook, Flickr, and Foursquare.
7. Creativity matters most. Isaacson opens the book with the story of Lovelace (1815-1852), who wrote the first algorithm meant to be carried out by a machine. He brings it back around to her at the end. “As she pointed out, in our symbiosis with machines we humans have brought one crucial element to the partnership: creativity.”
Isaacson castigates people who might scoff at engineers lacking an appreciation the arts, while blithely admitting they don’t know a mole from a molecule. The next round of innovation will rely on those who can link the two — “beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors,” Isaacson writes.
It’s good advice and maybe a warning.