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Ten Myths of Innovation

Myths_of_innovation "For centuries before Google, MIT, and IDEO, modern hotbeds of innovation, we struggled to explain any kind of creation, from the universe itself to the multitudes of ideas around us. While we can make atomic bombs, and dry-clean silk ties, we still don't have satisfying answers for simple questions like: Where do songs come from? Are there an infinite variety of possible kinds of cheese? How did Shakespeare and Stephen King invent so much, while we're satisfied watching sitcom reruns? Our popular answers have been unconvincing, enabling misleading, fantasy-laden myths to grow strong."

Scott Berkun - bestselling author of The Myths of Innovation


In The Myths of Innovation (O’Reilly), Scott Berkun demystifies innovation and illuminates why much of what we think we know about innovation is not only false, but may actually stifle our creativity.

For years Berkun's job at Microsoft was to come up with good ideas for making new things in Internet Explorer. He studied how the great innovators achieved what they did and why certain things both worked and failed. Along the way, he discovered amazing, mind-blowing facts from history that he wished someone had told him long ago.

A few of these powerful sticky myths of innovation that rule our world include Isaac Newton, who, for example, was never hit by an apple. The Nobel Peace Prize is named after the man who invented dynamite, which has been used in every war since its creation. Henry Ford was inspired to make assembly lines by watching his butcher take animals apart. And Google’s page-rank idea was inspired by how academic papers list their references.

"Innovation is the current hype word," Berkun says in an interview with Sara Peyton of O'Reilly Media. "The word has been trashed and abused, used mostly as a placeholder for thinking, which is a shame. Innovation is everywhere–the word was recently on the cover of BusinessWeek magazine. Defending against innovation is at the heart of the recent billion-dollar lawsuit Viacom filed against Google. Apple is about to launch its iPhone, a product it claims revolutionizes how we communicate. Making sense of these events and understanding why and how they happen is at the heart of The Myths of Innovation.

Berkun writes, "Discovering problems actually requires just as much creativity as discovering solutions." Einstein once said, "If I had 20 days to solve a problem, I would take 19 days to define it."

One of the reasons Edison became so famous is not that he “invented the light bulb,” but that he framed his problem much more broadly: "Make an electricity system cities can use to adopt my lights."

Here are some key thoughts Berkun brings to life:

    1. “Despite the myths, innovations rarely involve someone working alone, and never in history has an invention been made without reusing ideas from the past. For all of our chronocentric glee, our newest ideas have historic roots: the term network is 500 years old, webs were around before the human race, and the algorithmic DNA is more elegant and powerful than any programming language. Wise innovators--driven by passion more than ego--initiate partnerships, collaborations, and humble studies of the past, raising their odds against the timeless challenges of innovation."

    2. "Apple, like Edison, earned well-deserved credit for vastly improving existing ideas, refining them into excellent products, and developing them into businesses, but Apple did not invent the graphical user interface, the computer mouse, or the digital music player. Similarly, Google did not invent the search engine, and Nintendo did not invent the video game."

    3. "The most useful way to think of epiphany is as an occasional bonus of working on tough problems. Most innovations come without epiphanies, and when powerful moments do happen, little knowledge is granted for how to find the next one. . .Nearly every major innovation of the 20th century took place without claims of epiphany."

    4. "Study the history of any innovation--from catapults to telegraphs to laser beams and nanotechnology--and you'll find its invention and adoption is based on ordinary, selfish, and mostly short-term motivations. Mistakes and complexities are everywhere, rendering a straight line of progress as a kind of invention itself. . .Every technology arrived in the same chaos that we witness in our innovation today.”

    5. "There is a huge gap between how an innovator sees the world and how others see the world. Howard Aiken, a famous inventor, said, 'Don't worry about people stealing an idea. If it's original, you will have to ram it down their throats.'"

    6. "The love of new ideas is a myth: we prefer ideas only after others have tested them. We confuse truly new ideas with good ideas that have already been proven, which just happen to be new to us. The paradox is that the greater potential of an idea, the harder it is to find anyone willing to try it.”

    7. "While there a lot to be said for raising bars and pushing envelopes, breakthroughs happen for societies when innovations diffuse, not when they remain forever "ahead of their time."

    8. "The best lesson from the myths of Newton and Archimedes is to work passionately but to take breaks. Sitting under trees and relaxing in baths lets the mind wander and frees the subconscious to do work on our behalf. Freeman Dyson, a world-class physicist and author, agrees, "I think it's very important to be idle. . .people who keep themselves busy all the time are generally not creative. So I'm not ashamed of being idle. Some workaholic innovators tweak this by working on multiple projects at the same time, effectively using work on one project as a break from the other."

     9. "The myth that the best idea wins is dangerous. The goodness or newness of an idea is only part of the system that determines if it will win or lose."

    10. "The myth that leads to this idea-destroying behavior is that good ideas will look the part when found. The future never enters the present as a finished product, but that doesn't stop people from expecting it to arrive that way."

Posted by Casey Kazan.

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i loved this post...

Interesting that creativity has been coopted to mean primarily technical innovation nowadays. Appreciated the post, but Shakespeare and Stephen King are not even remotely the same sorts of minds. The gap in ability is greater than the gap between Newton and your average high school algebra teacher.

Interesting that creativity has been coopted to mean primarily technical innovation nowadays. Appreciated the post, but Shakespeare and Stephen King are not even remotely the same sorts of minds. The gap in ability is greater than the gap between Newton and your average high school algebra teacher.

Re: Shakespeare vs. Stephen King

I don't think equal ability was implied. Innovation is not necessarily genius.

I think a major point of this post is that most innovation, almost all innovation, is made by non-geniuses.

One of the myths described is that brilliant minds in isolation are the source of all real innovation.


The paperback edition of Myths, with 4 new chapters just came out:

Give me a ping and I'll get you a copy.

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