red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen



The Myths of Innovation

Scott Berkun
Sebastopol, California: O'Reilly Media Inc. ©2007


You might consider The Myths of Innovation as reality therapy for creative types and everyone else who thinks it takes something special to "innovate." Actually, what it takes is work. Yes, effort. Action. Slogging along when everything seems stuck. Work.

In this very readable little book, Scott Berkun reminds us that each one of us possesses the qualities of an innovator, that innovation is relative and subject to the context (what's an innovation for you or me might be pretty hum-drum to someone who's already heard about it), and it's a social function (people obsess about ranking things and ideas).

From 1994 to 2003, Berkun worked at Microsoft and was a member of the Internet Explorer web browser development team from 1994-1999. Since 2003, he's taken his show on the road, branching out as a consultant on project management, creative thinking skills, and managing people. He also blogs, writes books, and maintains a website where he expounds on innovation, design, and management.

In just under 150 pages (not counting bibliographies, research sources, and a surprisingly hilarious colophon), this book packs a punch. A sheaf of Post-It® flags in the page margins attest to the useful commentary found when reading. The opening quotation of the preface offers a clue to Berkun's point about innovation: "By idolizing those whom we honor we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves...we fail to recognize that we could go and do likewise."

The chapter titles constitute the ten myths Berkun chose to illustrate his premise. They are:

    1. The myth of epiphany
    2. We understand the history of innovation
    3. There is a method for innovation
    4. People love new ideas
    5. The lone inventor
    6. Good ideas are hard to find
    7. Your boss knows more about innovation than you
    8. The best ideas win
    9. Problems and solutions
    10. Innovation is always good

No doubt, you've succumbed to the romance of one or more of these "givens," only to be caught flat-footed when reality proved them to be less than solidly true. Berkun's intent is to bust open our brains and get rid of these false notions once and for all. "They" (the innovators, creators, artists, gurus, and other such folk) are only different from you and me in that they are more willing to follow their quirky thoughts and actually buckle down to do the hard, tedious, fruitful work of turning that idea-dross into real-world gold.

"The question of where ideas come from is on the mind of anyone visiting a research lab, an artist's workshop, or an inventor's studio. It's the secret we hope to see — the magic that happens when new things are born. Even in environments geared for creativity like Google [with bright-colored open spaces, beanbag chairs, Nerf toys, laptops, and Ping-Pong tables], staffed with the best and brightest, the elusive nature of ideas leaves us restless. We want creativity to be like opening a soda can or taking a bite of a sandwich: mechanical things that are easy to observe. Yet, simultaneously, we hold ideas to be special and imagine that their creation demands something beyond what we see every day. The result is that tours of amazing places even with full access to creators themselves, never convince us that we've seen the real thing. We still believe in our hearts there are top-secret rooms behind motion-sensor security systems or bank-vault doors with ideas, tended by their shaman-like keepers, stacked up like bars of wizardly gold."

We keep the illusion of the Yellow Brick Road, Emerald City, and all-powerful Wizard alive and living in Oz, instead of in our very own office cube. And we do that at our peril, because each of us is needed — all hands on deck — to contribute our part to the betterment of the collective whole (and our own personal well-being, too).

Berkun starts with the "myth of epiphany" as much because it seems to hold the largest sway over who is or can be an innovator as because the notion is embalmed in the history we tell ourselves about how the world we know it came to be. He's good at de-bunking our idols and reminding us of the long path innovation really takes.

"It's disputed whether Newton ever observed an apple fall. He certainly was never struck by one, unless there's secret evidence of fraternity food fights while he was studying at Cambridge. Even if the apple incident took place, the telling of the story discounts Newton's 20 years of work to explain gravity, the feat that earned him the attention of the world. Newton did not discover gravity, just as Columbus didn't discover America: the Egyptian pyramids and Roman coliseums prove that people knew the workings of gravity well before Newton. Instead, he explained, through math, how gravity works; while this contribution is certainly important, it's not the same as discovery."

As Berkun goes on to show throughout The Myths of Innovation, "ideas never stand alone.... It's the ability to see a problem clearly, combined with the talent to solve it, that matters." And he quotes Peter Drucker, writing in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, about qualities important to all inventors, artists, educators, scientists, creators, and innovators, whom Berkun sees as entrepreneurs: "Successful entrepreneurs do not wait until 'the Muse kisses them' and gives them a 'bright idea': they go to work."


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