Scott Berkun Spells out the Myths of Innovation

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(important notice: this post is the original and unabridged version of a post written for Bnet, to which I am a regular contributor)

“Poor is the substance, alas! and yet I’ve read all the books”: Stéphane Mallarmé’s warning would be perfectly valid for most of the literature devoted to innovation.There are books on that subject however, which are really worth reading such as the inevitable myths of innovation by Scott Berkun. Berkun is a full time writer and speaker and former programme manager at Microsoft, the man behind the success of Internet Explorer at a time when the web was dominated by Netscape. He also delivers lectures such as this amazing Carnegie Mellon presentation on the book I am describing here. His book is not based on dubious principles but spells out clearly the “don’ts” of innovation. It’s a lot more powerful than most books because of that, because it’s easier to learn from mistakes than mimic other people’s behaviour. Here are Scott Berkun’s 10 myths of innovation summed up in a few words, and I hope this will convince you to buy a copy of his book too:

  • myth number one: the myth of the epiphany
    An epiphany, in essence a sudden moment at which creation is supposed to happen, is epitomised by Archimedes’s Eureka moment or Newton’s apple. Yet, if many innovations are described as magical moments, the truth is often more complex: hard-work is required, the Eureka moment is often coming at the end of that process (not the beginning). Most Eureka legends aren’t real, they are myths aimed at giving a romantic view of innovation,
  • myth number two: we understand the history of innovation
    Well, so we think, but most of the time we don’t. Most of the stories we read about innovation aren’t real either. Google wasn’t a search engine to start with, nor was Flickr a photo sharing platform etc. in actual fact, most innovations are the results of errors, changes and corrections, but we like history to smooth things out and make them sound perfect and simple,
  • myth number three: there is a method for innovation
    How is innovation delivered? Despite our attraction to recipes, innovation is – in essence – a “charge into the unknown” and therefore, a method for innovation is a bit of an oxymoron,
  • myth number four: people love new ideas
    So we like to think but most of the time it’s not true. Changing one’s habits is always a challenge, and that is true of customers too (remember Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the chasm?”). There is no end to the list of rejections that innovators have to face. Change management is in an innovator’s best friend,
  • myth number five: the lone inventor
    We like stories in which a genius single-handedly changed the world: Edison invented the electric light; Ford invented the automobile; Apple invented the first graphical user interface etc. all wrong! And most of these stories are wrong. Often, innovations happen simultaneously too (in different countries at approximately the same time). Lastly, successful companies are often started by a group of people, not the obligatory lone inventor,
  • myth number six: good ideas are hard to find
    Ideas are everywhere, and not just found as a result of a brainstorm session (a tool which most of the time is badly used and implemented). Ideas come in more than many ways, mostly through trial and error. As far as I am concerned, because I am not a very imaginative person, I love to pick other people’s brains and make notes of all the ideas they have had but have never had the pluck to implement. It would be so nice if we could… is often my starting point. The real issue is not the idea(s) but how they could come to fruition and when,
  • myth number seven: your boss knows more about innovation than you
    Berkun argues that managers can make decisions that others can’t but this doesn’t mean that they always know what to do. Often, power and a high position in the hierarchy exert pressure on execs and they feel terribly alone. I have witnessed that the higher in the hierarchy two, the farther away you are from the field and it’s easy to lose sight of reality; theoretical views don’t make decision-making easy. Often, managers are therefore afraid of innovation. Berkun provides the antidote by describing the most common necessary traits of successful managers,
  • myth number eight: the best ideas win
    There is a fairy tale view of innovation (in fairy tales good guys win and bad guys lose) hence the belief that it’s always the best innovation that wins. There are so many counterexamples such as the QWERTY keyboard (aimed at slowing down typists to avoid jamming), HTML and JavaScript (probably the most horrendous computer languages ever invented), the M-16 rifle etc. There are 7 factors according to Berkun which are leading to product success: culture, dominant design, inheritance and tradition, politics, economics, subjectivity and short-term orientation,
  • myth number nine: problems and solutions
    Great innovations – such as the palm pilot project, a pioneering digital notepad invented at the end of the 1990s – often come from the clear and simple spelling of a few problems that they are meant to solve. Believing that serendipity plays a major role is also wrong and yet another proof of the myth of the epiphany. Hard work and prototyping are of the essence,
  • myth number ten: innovation is always good
    Rudolf diesel is said to have committed suicide when he realised that his invention would only be bought by the military (and therefore serve the purpose of the war between Germany and France; he was German but had always lived in France). His innovation was being used to do harm and kill people and destroy Europe, not to do good and improve people’s lives. Other examples abound quoted by Berkun in his book — such as the DDT and personal computers and even cell phones, not to mention discrimination via the infamous digital divide.

Such are the lessons we can derive from Scott Berkun’s research on innovation. In one of his posts on the Harvard Business Review blog, Berkun declared that true innovators don’t use the word innovation at all. They talk about new products, new projects, change management or just doing things. Innovation isn’t a playground for intellectuals; it’s a game for doers and hard workers. I found the statements so true, and so close to how I felt (sometimes I’m being asked to pitch about innovation and I feel weird about that, because innovation is something one does but it’s yet difficult to describe) that I decided to know more and buy this book; probably one of my favourite business books.

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