Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Myths of Innovation

The stickiest thing on earth is a myth.  Columbus discovered America.  Washington could not tell a lie.  Edison invented the electric light.  Batman could beat Superman.

See? Powerful, sticky, charming, and wrong.  And yet, we still love them.

We learn myths to help us cope with some new, complicated situation or body of knowledge. Then we get a little experience, and we spend the rest of our time unlearning the myths so we can get something useful accomplished.

If we’re lucky, that is. Because, inevitably, the truth is more interesting and richer than the myth, and the key to forward progress.

The myths we create and perpetuate in business are as debilitating as any of our historical or cultural myths. In fact, they may be more debilitating, since they can govern our professional success.  That’s why Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation, published earlier this year by O’Reilly Media, is such an interesting read.

Berkun’s aims are articulated upfront: Identify the myths about innovation, explain why they're popular, and explore and teach from the truth. I count ten myths in all, but a single uber-myth weaves its way through most of the detail, and it goes like this: Innovation is about some brilliant person who is struck by a profound insight and then goes on to change the world. The quintessential myth-story, as Berkun illustrates, is that of Newton being hit on the head by an apple.

If we truly believed that, we’d all go home to swing in the hammock with a mint julep in our hand. Or we’d keep walking by the cube of the smartest engineer or marketer in the company, waiting for the disco ball to start turning. That’s why myths can be so debilitating.

The fact is that the truths about innovation are energizing. And, Berkun’s Myths of Innovation is full of good history and thoughtful ideas that can supply some great momentum for your own daily work.

In deference to Mr. Berkun, I’m going to include only 14 take-aways in this article (even though I have about 40). I don’t want to be the spoiler to your buying the book. And, while those of you who have knocked around a bit in the trade will have slayed some of these myths long ago, I would guess that those of you new to innovation will find all of the myths worth exploring.

Here are a handful of quick take-aways:
1. All innovations are a combination of materials and ideas that already exist, used in a different or new way. (That’s why innovation responds to “good process” and determined work, just like most everything else.)  This is a key take-away from both Schumpeter and Drucker, the topic of an excellent piece by Malcolm Gladwell (2008).

2. "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."

3. "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.”

4. 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."

5. "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."  For additional discussion on this, pick up a copy of Mariana Mazzucato's The Entrepreneurial State.

6. “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." 
7. 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.  This suggests that the most successful innovations are not the most valuable or the best ideas, but the ones that appear on the sweet spot between what's good from the expert's perspective, and what can be easily adopted, given the uncertainties of all the secondary factors combined."

8. "It's deceptively hard to create good constraints, and there's less glory in problem finding than solving; however, the number of successful innovations based on clever constraints proves it's worth the time."
One of the great takeaways from the book is Berkun’s contention that there is safety in numbers. “To some extent, we've lost the ability to innovate because so many of us make other people's stuff, and are willing to use what's there rather than devise something better.”  The solution, according to Linus Pauling, is this: “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”