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The Myths of Innovation 103

cgjherr writes "Ah, the technology history book, normally I'm not a fan. The writing is aloof and dry. The topics are vague, the history misinterpreted, and the lessons presented too vague to be applicable. And don't get me started on the illustrations, which are all too often pyramids with the authors perched at the top looking down on the lowly reader at the base. Thankfully, this book, "the myths of innovation" breaks all of these rules. It's an engaging, fun and quick read. The history is interesting, and the lessons presented are practical. I particularly like the author's tone. It's witty and light. Which makes this a very fast read, one that leaves you wanting even more by the end." Read below for the rest of Jack's review.
The Myths of Innovation
author Scott Berkun
pages 176
publisher O'Reilly
rating Excellent
reviewer Jack Herrington
ISBN 0596527055
summary The history of innovation with lessons learned
The myths of innovation is about how innovation happens in the real world in companies, universities and garages around the company. The first two chapters really draw the reader in by showing the twin fallacies of the epiphany moment and the historically clean line of innovation. Learning that innovation doesn't just come as a flash, and that lots of successes have come out of copious failure encourages us to try to innovate, and to keep trying even when we believe we have failed.

This short book (147 pages of content) is presented in ten short chapters. The first two show you how anyone can be an innovator. You can think of those as the debunking chapters. The third chapter is where the author starts helping you to build some techniques to innovate. He presents how there are some reasonable methods to spur innovation and shows examples from Apple, Google, Edison, Craiglist and more.

In chapter four he shows how to overcome peoples fears of innovation and overcome the common problems with the adoption of new technologies. Chapter five, "the lone innovator", debunks the legend of, well, the lone innovator. It sounds good, and plays into our noble story of the hero, but it's not common in reality. Chapter six talks about ideas and surveys where innovators have found the ideas that they start out with. Of course, where you start is often not where you end but that's ok, since innovation is a lot more about failure than it is about success.

Chapter seven covers something I think most of us can relate to, which is that managers aren't often the innovators. Chapter eight talks about how we believe that the "best ideas always win" but that's least often the case. This sounds pessimistic, but it's actually an interesting study in how the biggest product with the most feature isn't always the best for the customer. Chapter nine, "problems and solutions", talks about framing problems to constrain the creativity and innovation. The final chapter, "innovation is always good", is at the same time the most amusing and disturbing. It covers innovations from the automobile to DDT and presents that innovation, no matter what, is always good. Agree or disagree the points are well presented.

As I say I really enjoyed this book. It's an easy read that is hard to put down. What's more it's really motivating. After reading this book you will want to dig right back into those crazy ideas lurking around in the back of your mind and give them another shot. With this book, you will have a few more tools at your disposal to turn your ideas into reality.

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The Myths of Innovation

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  • by jd ( 1658 ) <{moc.oohay} {ta} {kapimi}> on Wednesday May 23, 2007 @04:33PM (#19244087) Homepage Journal
    That's what it comes down to. Do ideas evolve and become something new, over time, or are they something that spontaneously appear?

    It's not about mimicking someone, but about preferring to stand on the shoulders of giants -- even if said giants are just other people standing on other shoulders. Innovation does involve something new being added. It is also not merely adding something for the sake of adding something - it can't be "Embrace and Extend". What was there before has to have a definite, identifiable, significant limitation or flaw and the new solution has to have a definite, identifiable, significant remedy that is genuinely unique and quite possibly inspired.

    There is almost nothing in the world that didn't have a predecessor. Modern writing evolved from early phonetic syllaberies which evolved from symbols representing words/ideas which evolved from pictures representing entire scenes/concepts. Each stage came from something older, but each stage required a truly amazing intellectual leap.

    Now, I personally draw a distinction between innovation and invention. To me, "invention" can only really refer to the first step in any such chain. All other steps are innovative, but they are not inventive. To me, an invention can have no true precursor. There may be something that an inventor uses as a source of inspiration, some personal Muse, but the source cannot be a true predecessor. The most it can be is inspiration.

    Inventions, by my definition, are extremely rare, and are almost certainly invented by individuals. Innovations, by definition, are the work of not only the innovator(s) but all predecessors as well. As such, they are by definition not the work of individuals.

    Also by my definition, inventors are very much a breed apart. The way most people think precludes them from ever inventing anything - they simply cannot imagine something from scratch, they can only imagine in derivative terms. Nothing wrong with that, and for most of life it is infinitely preferable. To think totally outside the box, totally in non-derivative terms, requires a brain that has some combination of higher-functioning autism, schizo-effective disorder and borderline personality disorder, and is yet functional enough in the real world to do anything meaningful.

    Inventors are almost never successful, rarely have more than one true invention in their entire life, and historically have either descended further into madness, died young as a result of that illness, and/or died in abject poverty as a result of that illness. These days, you will most likely find true inventors living homeless on the streets, suffering from alcoholism and terrible ill-health. They will not be living in the condos of Silicon Valley, sipping champagne for breakfast. The reason there are more artistic inventors than technological inventors is that the homeless can usually scrounge chalk or paints far more easily than they can chip fabrication plants.

    Countries that tend to provide better services for those who can barely function in life are frequently cited for having an extraordinary number of true inventors. This isn't because they really have more, it's because their inventors are more likely to live long enough and have the means to circulate their ideas. Countries known to provide only limited or non-existent help are known for their innovators (who are often world-class) but almost never for true invention. Generally, no country can afford to fund both inventors and innovators, and almost nobody tries.

  • by metlin ( 258108 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2007 @04:38PM (#19244199) Journal

    Isn't the whole point of innovation to come up with some new idea.
    Reminds me of a story. Someone once approached Frank Herbert and said that they had an idea, and if he would write a book, they'd share the profits with him.

    He laughed at the person, because it is not the ideas that he was lacking in - it was the time and effort of executing those ideas that was hard.

    Similarly, ideas are dime a dozen. Even *good* ideas are easy to find. Don't believe me? Just work on an area for a few months and you'll find yourself coming up with unique solutions and new ideas to solve existing problems that you (or people known to you) face.

    On that note, cultures and environments that encourage innovation by letting folks come up with and work on new ideas will always succeed. I do not know about geniuses, but I have seen that even the most mediocre, average person can come up with fantastic ideas under the right circumstances and under the right environment (and the right tutelage).

    There is nothing wrong in mimicking something else - if you can do something better than someone else can, then by all means go ahead. It is the end result that matters, not the uniqueness of the idea.

    Ideas are worthless if you can't do something with them.
  • Already skeptical... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by WileyC ( 188236 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2007 @05:09PM (#19244717)
    If he lists DDT as a 'bad innovation', I have my doubts about the credibility of the book. DDT has been demonized as some sort of supertoxin, which it most definitely is not. Properly used, it is a very effective and safe pesticide, especially when non-bug species are involved. Most of the studies that lambasted DDT turned out to have terribly flawed protocols and, at the same time, there are countless documented examples of the good it has done. Mind you, as a pesticide, you wouldn't want to spray it recklessly... well, duh, that describes EVERY pesticide! Eggshell thinning? Almost certainly a myth. Cancer in humans? Nope, no evidence of that. Destroyed biota? Uh-uh, didn't happen.

    Perhaps the author merely pulled DDT as an example out of the air, but that would reflect poorly on his skills as well.

  • by radtea ( 464814 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2007 @08:27PM (#19246821)
    In my experience each and every innovation can trace its roots back to one key insight in the mind of one person.

    This is either trivially true, inasmuch as every thought occurs first in an individual mind, and for a sufficiently small quantum of innovation it will be just one person who first has that insight and acts on it; or it is trivially false, because most of what is thought of as "innovation" is a collection of such individual insights.

    In my experience as an innovator and inventor there are quite different kinds of innovation, which could be called "invention" and "aggregation." Invention means solving a novel, atomic problem. Aggregation means putting together the inventions of others into a new configuration. Both of these are equally important: without invention aggregators would have nothing to aggregate, and without aggregation far too many inventions would never have a very large impact on human capability.

    Inventors are people like Newcomb and Watt, and perhaps the Wright brothers. Henry Ford was perhaps the world's greatest aggregator. Edison managed to do a bit of both.

    Inventors tend to be excessively protective of their priority. Aggregators tend to be excessively lax in giving inventors credit (and payment.)

    But again, both are required, and to disparage or ignore one of them is to miss an extremely important aspect of innovation.

When you are working hard, get up and retch every so often.