Book Summary: “The Myths of Innovation” by Scott Berkun

Title: The Myths of Innovation
Author: Scott Berkun
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4.5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Berkun busts a number a widely held myths about innovation.

If you would like to learn more about innovation in history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

This book is an excellent introduction to the field of innovation. In contrast to many books in the field, it is highly readable.

Key Take-aways

  • Innovations rarely come from one great epiphany (an “aha” moment). It comes from spending huge amounts of time understanding a field, identifying its key problems and looking for solutions outside the field.
  • Traditional histories of innovation are deceptive because they typically only focus on innovations that succeeded and ignore the vast number of similar innovations that failed to gain market share.
  • There is no one process for innovation.
  • Big ideas in all fields endure dismissals, mockeries, and persecutions (of them and their creators) on their way to changing the world.
  • 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.
  • Innovators rarely find support within mainstream organizations, which tend to be risk averse
  • Inventors rarely work alone, even though history often gives credit to one individual.
  • Nearly simultaneous invention by different people without knowledge of each other is a common phenomenon. It’s common because innovations demand prerequisite knowledge.
  • The best ideas don’t always win. The factors that spread innovations are largely about ease of adoption.
  • Successful innovation often involves more attention to problems than solutions.
  • Very few innovators studied innovation or creative thinking. They learned by doing.

Important Quotes from Book

One grand myth is the story of Isaac Newton and the discovery of gravity. As it’s often told, Newton was sitting under a tree, an apple fell on his head, and the idea of gravity was born. It’s entertaining more than truthful, turning the mystery of ideas into something innocent, obvious, and comfortable.

Newton’s apple myth is a story of epiphany or “a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something,”1 and in the mythology of innovation, epiphanies serve an important purpose.

Any seemingly grand idea can be divided into an infinite series of smaller, previously known ideas.

For most, there is no singular magic moment; instead, there are many smaller insights accumulated over time.

The myth of epiphany tempts us to believe that the magic moment is the grand catalyst; however, all evidence points to its more supportive role.

One way to think about epiphany is to imagine working on a jigsaw puzzle. When you put the last piece into place, is there anything special about that last piece or what you were wearing when you put it in? The only reason that last piece is significant is because of the other pieces you’d already put into place.

Any major innovation or insight can be seen in this way. It’s simply the final piece of a complex puzzle falling into place. But unlike a puzzle, the universe of ideas can be combined in an infinite number.

Epiphany had three parts, roughly described as early, insight, and after. During the early period, hours or days are spent understanding the problem and immersing oneself in the domain. An innovator might ask questions like “What else in the world is like this?” and “Who has solved a problem similar to mine?”, learning everything he can and exploring the world of related ideas. And then there is a period of incubation in which the knowledge is digested, leading to experiments and rough attempts at solutions. Sometimes there are long pauses during incubation when progress stalls and confidence wanes.

Deep quiet periods, time spent doing unrelated things, often helps new ideas surface.

The best lesson from the myths of Newton and Archimedes is to work passionately but to take breaks.

To focus on the magic moments is to miss the point. The goal isn’t the magic moment: it’s the end result of a useful innovation.

Nearly every major innovation of the 20th century took place without claims of epiphany.

The stories told in schools and books present Gutenberg and other innovators as obvious, logical, and necessary contributors to the world, begging the assumption that if we were alive in their time, we’d see them in the same way they’re portrayed in our history books. Those glorified accounts present innovation in a distorted way that is impossible to achieve in the present because the neat arcs of progress, clear sense of purpose, and certainty of success are heavily shaped, if not invented, by hindsight.

This means that every technology, from pacemakers to contact lenses, fluorescent lights to birth control pills, arrived through the same chaos seen in the hot technologies of today. Just because dominant designs developed before we were born, or in fields so far from our own that we’re ignorant of their struggles, doesn’t mean their arrival was predictable, orderly, or even in our best interest. Yet, the dominant designs, the victors of any innovative pursuit, are the ones that get most of history’s positive attention.

Not only do timelines express a false omnipotent view of history, they’re superficial, offering an illusion of comprehensiveness… At best, timelines show only one path of the full tree of innovation history.

The myth of methodology, in short form, is the belief that a playbook exists for innovation and, like Mr. K.’s deceptively quaint instructions, it removes risk from the process of finding new ideas.

The best advice I’ve read on starting creative work comes from John Cage, often considered the most innovative composer of the 20th century,5 who said, “It doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you start.” He meant that there can be no perfect beginning: it’s only after you start—no matter how roughly—that you can evaluate and build on what you’ve done, shift directions, or start over with the insight and perspective you’ve gained in the process. Innovation is best compared to exploration, and like Magellan or Captain Cook, you can’t find something new if you limit your travels to places others have already found.

The majority of innovations come from dedicated people in a field working hard to solve a well-defined problem… the innovators spent time framing the problem, enumerating possible solutions, and then began experimenting.

Many innovations begin with bright minds following their personal interests. The ambition is to pass time, learn something new, or have fun. At some point, the idea of a practical purpose arises, commitments are made, and the rest is history.

Many innovations are driven by the quest for cash.

Waves of innovation have come from individuals in need of something they couldn’t find.

Most innovations involve many factors, and it’s daft to isolate one above others.

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple and Pixar, was asked, “How do you systematize innovation?” (a common question among CEOs and the business community). His answer was, “You don’t.”

I’ve categorized the eight challenges innovators confront:

  • Finding an idea
  • Developing a solution
  • Sponsorsip and funding
  • Reproduction
  • Reaching potential customers
  • Beating competitors
  • Timing
  • Keeping the lights on

The good news that arises from all of these challenges is that there are many ways to succeed.

Every great idea in history has the big, red stamp of rejection on its face. It’s hard to see today because once ideas gain acceptance, we gloss over the hard paths they took to get there.

Big ideas in all fields endure dismissals, mockeries, and persecutions (of them and their creators) on their way to changing the world.

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.

We reuse ideas and opinions all the time, rarely committing to the truly new. But we should be proud; it’s smart. Why not recycle good ideas and information? Why not take advantage of the conclusions other people have made to efficiently separate what’s good and safe from what’s bad and dangerous? Innovation is expensive: no one wants to pay the price for ideas that turn out to be not quite ready for prime time.

There is an evolutionary advantage in this fear of new things. Any ancestor who compulsively jumped off every newly discovered cliff or ate only scary-looking plants died off quickly. We happily let brave souls like Magellan, Galileo, and Neil Armstrong take intellectual and physical risks on our behalf, watching from a safe distance, following behind (or staying away) once we know the results. Innovators are the test pilots of life, taking big chances so we don’t have to.

The secret tragedy of innovators is that their desire to improve the world is rarely matched by support from those they hope to help.

This creates an unfortunate paradox: the greater the potential of an idea, the harder it is to find anyone willing to try it.

Most have little interest in having their minds changed… This gap—the difference between how an innovator sees her work from how it’s seen by others—is the most frustrating challenge innovators face.

Many innovators give up when they learn ideas—even with dazzling prototypes or plans in hand—are only the beginning. The challenges that follow demand skills of persuasion more than brilliance. As Howard H. Aiken, a famous inventor, said, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

The observation many would-be innovators never make is that most criticisms are superficial. The spoken questions only hint at the real concerns. Responding to superficial comments is a loser’s game; persuading demands mapping criticisms to deeper issues.

This is the magic double-secret principle: innovative ideas are rarely rejected on their merits; they’re rejected because of how they make people feel.

This challenge of mind is known as the innovator’s dilemma. The face-off between Western Union and Alexander Graham Bell (dramatized but roughly accurate in my telling) has been played out for centuries, with the captains of one aging innovation protecting their work from the threat of emerging ideas.

Frustration with people in power is a perennial complaint among creative minds.

Innovators rarely find support within mainstream organizations.

This explains the natural bond between breakthrough thinkers and new companies: innovative entrepreneurs not only have the passion for new ideas, they also have the conviction to make sacrifices that scare established companies.

The risks for an individual focusing 100% of his resources on a crazy idea are small: it’s one life. But for an organization of 500 or 10,000 people, the risks of betting large on a new idea are high.

Most innovations are not the solid, tangible, independent things we imagine them to be. Each one is made up of threads and relationships that don’t separate easily or yield simple answers.

Edison, Ford, and countless innovators are recognized as sole inventors for convenience. The histories we know depart from the truth for the simple reason that it makes them easier to remember.

The problem of simultaneous inventorship: the situation when two or more people claim to have invented something.

It’s common because innovations demand prerequisite knowledge… Add the limited number of popular problems in any field, and suddenly the number of people chasing particular challenges isn’t so large.

Given the combination of shared factors, odds are reasonable that people in the same field, at the same time, studied in the same universities or learned from the same textbooks.11 They might even have mutual friends, drinking buddies, or dance partners, making the chances for simultaneous invention unexpectedly high: as free as people are to think creatively, there is a wardrobe of existing ideas that they’re all shopping from.

What makes simultaneous invention (also known as multiples) contentious is that creators often work in isolation from—yet in competition with—their peers, making them prone to fantasies that their creations are unique.

Despite the myths, innovations rarely involve someone working alone, and never in history has an invention been made without reusing ideas from the past.

Ideas need nurturing and are grown, not manufactured, which suggests that idea shortages are self-inflicted. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that ideas will always be easier to find if they’re not shot down on sight.

The myth that leads to this idea-destroying behavior is that good ideas will look the part when found.

Linus Pauling, the only winner of two solo Nobel Prize awards in history, had this to say about finding ideas: “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”

In a recent survey, innovative people—from inventors to scientists, writers to programmers—were asked what techniques they used. Over 70% believed they got their best ideas by exploring areas they were not experts in.

Talent is only as good as the environment it’s in… Few managers recognize that their training and experience, designed to protect what exists, work against the forces needed for innovation.

High experience and confidence make people the greatest resisters to new ideas as they have the most to lose.

It’s natural for people to protect what they know instead of leaping into the unknown, and managers are no exception. Managers might even be worse, as the politics they rely on to survive can make them more entrenched and defensive.

Professional management was born from the desire to optimize and control, not to lead waves of change.

Good managers of innovation recognize that they are in primary control over the environment, and it’s up to them to create a place for talented people to do their best work.

One thing a genius can’t do that her manager can is provide cover fire. Whether through power, inspiration, or charisma, managers have the singular burden of protecting their teams. Innovations always threaten someone in power, and executives in search of budget cuts frequently target them first. The manager’s unique role is to use whatever means necessary to shield innovation while it’s too young to defend itself in the open.

The best ideas don’t always win, but that doesn’t stop people from believing they should. Most innovators were frustrated by how their ideas, clearly superior in their own minds, struggled for acceptance in the world.

The factors that spread innovations are largely about ease of adoption.

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. The idealism of goodness and the notion that goodness wins is tempered by the limits and irrationalities of people’s willingness to try new things, the culture of the era, and the events of the time. This explains why the first innovators— driven by complete faith in their ideas—are so often beaten in the market, and in public perception, by latecomers willing to compromise.

Successful innovation often involves more attention to problems than solutions.

One way to creatively describe a challenge is to compare it to another kind of challenge that’s been solved.

When considering the creators of the great works of the past, it’s surprising how few of them studied innovation or creative thinking.

However, what they did do was pick specific problems they were passionate about, and got to work. They focused on those problems, often with little guarantee of reward. My point is that they didn’t seem to need much understanding of innovation as an abstract concept, which many people today believe is the place to start. But a strong case can be made that the opposite is true. Many of the great figures didn’t care to study; they preferred to do. They quickly got to work trying to solve important problems—that in some cases they thought they could profit from—and learned along the way.

Perhaps the greatest myth of all is that you need to be an expert in innovation in order to change the world.

We like to pretend that gap from knowing to doing is small, but it’s enormous, and few people are willing to do the work to close that gap. It requires courage, persistence, comfort with risk, and a willingness to do work with no guaranteed external rewards. These qualities are more important than knowledge, degrees, or shelves of books on innovation.

In this age, being seen as an “expert” may have little bearing on the “expert’s” ability to do the thing she is supposedly an expert in. This doesn’t mean books are useless, but it does mean there’s a paradox: the people most visible for being experts on innovation are those who spend more time writing and talking about it than actually doing it.

If you would like to learn more about innovation in history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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