Booknote: Lessons in creativity from Kevin Ashton's How to Fly a Horse

Each week, London Strategy Unit fillets one of the most influential books from the world of innovation, marketing or creativity, and serves up its most relevant ideas and advice. A marketing strategy and innovation company, LSU works with the likes of EY, JLL, ASOS, the BBC, adidas, Sanofi, Jaguar, Unilever and Mondelez around the world.

They read books, so you don't have to.

Each week, the London Strategy Unit's Matt Boffey reads one of the most influential books from the world of innovation, marketing or creativity so you don't have to. In this first digest, he tells us what we can learn from How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery (2015) - Kevin Ashton.

Why have we chosen this book?

Because it’ll change the way that you think about creativity. Rather than being the preserve of an elite few, we’re living in an era where everyday creativity is the new status quo. In 2011 alone, almost as many Americans received their first patent as attended a typical NASCAR rally – Ashton’s book gets to grips with why we’ve become a world of creators.

What’s the original thought or argument?

Ashton puts to bed what he calls the “creation myth”. He argues that there’s actually very little evidence that innovation occurs through flashes of inspiration or that certain people are “born geniuses”. Drawing on examples ranging from medical practice to puppetry, Ashton argues that creators are set apart by their sheer persistence and a desire to constantly improve, iterate and refine their idea.

If you want to look smart, just read

Chapter two, 'Thinking is Like Walking'. It’s here that Ashton details his theory that great creators think in small steps, never big leaps. The first iPhone in 2007 was based on the small step of replacing a clunky phone keyboard with a single input surface - using personal computing technology that was over 20 years old to completely change the phone market.

You might want to skip

Chapter five, 'Where Credit is Due', where Ashton attempts to right the wrongs of history by crediting creators whose discoveries have been misattributed. Watson and Crick took the credit for Rosalind Franklin’s discovery of the DNA double helix. Now you know. Ashton is also prone to Brent-isms like: “Necessity is not the mother of invention. You are.” When you come across them, grimace and move on.

Why trust this author?

Ashton has some serious creator credentials of his own. While a brand manager at Procter & Gamble, he invented a way of tracking stock levels by embedding radio devices into lipstick tubes. This was the start of the 'Internet of Things' (a phrase Ashton coined) – a vision of electronics-enabled physical objects feeding data to the world through the internet.

Once you’ve read this you don’t need to read

Books with titles like Get Inspired and Create Ideas and Make them Happen. If after reading How to Fly a Horse you need a self-help book to enable your creativity you might have missed Ashton’s point. Instead try asking yourself: “What do I interact with on a daily basis that could be improved?” And then: “How can I make that happen?”

Why should this stay on your bookshelf?

Because it’ll keep you from falling into the “other people are creators” trap. Even if you’re not in a particularly creative role, How to Fly a Horse points out that innovation comes from all kinds of unlikely places. Edmond – a 12-year-old slave on an island east of Madagascar in 1800 – worked out how to pollinate orchids artificially and in doing so, created a multi-million-ton vanilla trade.

What’s the one thing you should do differently after reading this book?

Stop looking for the 'next big thing'. Instead, approach innovation as a process of improving your existing product, platform or service by 10 per cent each time. Breakthrough ideas still need incremental steps; James Dyson went through 5,114 prototypes before releasing his first cyclone vacuum cleaner.

Best quote in the whole book?

“All stories of creators tell the same truths: that creating is extraordinary but creators are human; that everything right with us can fix anything wrong with us; and that progress is not an inevitable consequence but an individual choice.”

Matt Boffey is the founder of London Strategy Unit, which you can follow on Twitter @LSUsocial

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