Myths and Methods of Innovation

An Interview with Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation
By Vern Burkhardt
Myths simplify and distort reality but as human beings we have a propensity for believing them. When it comes to innovation the myths surrounding it can stand solidly in your way.

In his book [The Myths of Innovation] Scott Berkun spends 10 interesting chapters fully exploring and exploding the 10 monster myths about creative discovery. He replaces them with good, not-so-common, common sense based on careful research and clear thinking.

Those 10 myths are:

  • The myth of epiphany—there is no eureka moment, ideas never stand alone

  • We understand the history of innovation—we have simplified legends

  • There is a method for innovation—there are infinite paths to innovation

  • People love new ideas—most people fear change

  • The lone inventor—all innovation is bound to what came before

  • Good ideas are hard to find—humans are built for creative thinking

  • Your boss knows more about innovation than you—just because the boss has power doesn’t mean he knows everything

  • The best ideas win—not always

  • Problems and solutions—problem finding and framing are more important

  • Innovation is always good—all innovations combine good and bad effects

Scott BerkunThough the book is very complete I did have some questions which Scott Berkun was kind enough to answer:

Vern Burkhartd (VB): Do you think understanding that technological innovations never have been, and never will be preordained, gives us an opportunity to try to make better choices for the future?

Scott Berkun:
Yes. If you know the history of how we arrived at gas powered cars, or cellular phones, you’re better able to evaluate whatever corporations or governments start talking about next.

VB: One myth you talk about is the one that says today’s technologies are a logical and foregone conclusion of our past. Do you think the potential existed in the past, for our present to be a very different place? If so, could you speculate in what ways and why?

Scott Berkun:
If we believe that we have free will, and that we have the power to make choices in the present, then we have to believe people 20 or 100 years ago had the same freedom to make choices. We could have had steam powered cars: the first trains and automobiles were in fact steam powered. Many U.S. cities regret pulling out their networks of downtown cable cars, as now it’s prohibitively expensive to retrofit cities with much needed public transportation. The rise of both Microsoft and Google depended heavily on the mistakes of their early competitors and predecessors. Had Xerox, Palo Alto Research Centre, Atari, IBM, or AltaVista made one or two different decisions; we’d have a very different world.

VB: You say there are no guarantees for mankind of “inevitable progress” and “The dilemma is that, at any moment, it’s difficult to know whether we’re witnessing progress or merely… a short-term gain with negative long-term consequences.” A present example is our use of automobiles, which make life easier in so many ways, but also cause large numbers of deaths, pollution and congestion. What is your take on why mankind has not yet figured out how to learn from our mistakes and to correct them—especially when the consequences are serious?

Scott Berkun:
Learning from mistakes requires humility, and that is just too hard for most of us. On the other hand denial, and the belief that we are smarter than those who came before us, is way too easy.

VB: Do you think innovation is outstripping the majority of the population’s ability to keep up with and use it wisely—or did that happen long ago?

Scott Berkun:
I think in a functional sense, most of the western world is keeping up well. I-phones and Blackberries are expensive, and a large percentage of users are not the youngest generations. But we pay a price for the frequency of change: I think the stress levels, lack of free time, and sense of falling behind that many people feel is the real cost of believing in the necessity of the newest thing.

VB: As we become more densely populated with technologies do you think the “innovators dilemma” will have more or less influence? Or will innovators necessarily become more tolerant of change and dissonance? (Vern’s note: “Innovators dilemma” is when you have invented something new and successful and then find yourself faced with a newer, better idea.)

Scott Berkun:
If we pay more attention to sustainability, and recognize the true costs of throwing computers away every two years (which many consumers and corporations do), then the innovator’s dilemma becomes easier to manage for corporations. If the costs of switching get higher, it’s easier for the older design to stay dominant. Let’s say the next version of the i-phone had a landfill tax, to pay for the costs of disposing of your obsolete i-phone. That increase in cost would make it harder for the new version to succeed, and make it easier for older phones, or the company selling older model phones, to survive. But no matter what you do, the innovators dilemma is a social function. Once you are successful, your view of the world changes.

VB: Do you think there is a moral component to our insatiable questing? Particularly when considering the cost to the environment in manufacturing processes and the ease with which we discard things, like our analog TVs when they still have hours and hours of good operating time left?

Scott Berkun:
All choices have a moral component, don’t they? The trap in consumption is we’ve been trained for decades that buying the latest goods are not only good for our social status, but good for the economy, and now in the U.S., good for our country. People don’t often see where their trash goes or what happens to their old gadgets when they upgrade. It goes somewhere, right? But television ads and marketing campaigns have no obligation to morality, or to show us the full social and environmental costs of what we buy. But I wouldn’t say buying new things is necessarily immoral. Instead I’d say most people, most of the time, are ignorant about the full impact of the purchases they make. Myself included. It’s in everyone’s short term interest, from the store owner, to the manufacturer, to the marketer, to err on the side of selling me more than I need.

VB: You describe the very understandable forces that contribute to a successful company’s striving to maintain the status quo and by doing so possibly missing out on opportunities to innovate and change with the times. How would you recommend that businesses guard against this?

Scott Berkun:
The best analogy is investing. Anyone who invests their money looks to distribute across different levels of risk. Same should go for any business. Seventy percent of the budget should go to conservative investments, twenty percent to exploring medium risk new opportunities, and ten percent to high risk new opportunities. Or something like that. If there is no distribution of risk, there should be no expectation for new kinds of growth.

VB: Do you think it would be possible for someone who really understood everything you say in your book about people’s emotional responses to innovation, to figure out how to introduce a new innovation with guaranteed success? Are people already doing this—or are there always risks, no matter how much homework you’ve done?

Scott Berkun:
Myths of InnovationI don’t think there are any guarantees in life. There are always risks. You may have done everything right, but someone else offers a pitch that’s more appealing to those in power for whimsical reasons you could not possibly have predicted. But the more factors you know, and most importantly, the more experience you have working with ideas and presenting them, the higher the odds you’ll do well. I’m a huge fan of history because it’s free experience: books like mine offer a goldmine of knowledge about what people have already tried and why it worked or failed. It’s much less painful to earn that experience from a few hours of reading a book than through doing it all yourself in real life.

VB: All things considered, and philosophically speaking, do you think it is necessary, or even possible, for us to continue to go faster and faster as an innovating species?

Scott Berkun:
I don’t worry about speed, I worry about direction. Innovation is a kind of force: what problems will it be used to solve? We know we produce too much waste for the planet and throw away perfectly functional technologies that sit in third world landfills. How can we apply the power of innovation to solve those problems? How can we develop rewards for problems with longer term value, instead of just for fancier gadgets and cell-phones that prompt even more waste? That’s the question to worry about.

VB: You talk about the traditional role of management being one of control and optimizing the status quo and that this tends to close the door on innovation from within. Do you think having twin managers, one to control and one to encourage innovation might be a useful solution for some companies? Do we need a Chief Innovation Officer, just like some years ago when many companies introduced the role of Chief Information Officer?

Scott Berkun:
I don’t know about you, but I have enough trouble with one boss, I’d never willingly agree to have two. You can’t split these things. It’s not that hard for a manager to recognize the competing tensions in their role. If every manager is rewarded for separating tasks that should be optimized from tasks that require innovation, they’ll do it, and once they do it they’ll recognize they have to manage those two kinds of tasks differently. A Chief Innovation Officer is a sign of deep problems. You’d never have a chief spelling officer, would you? Change happens when people are rewarded for doing something different, and unless a Chief Innovation officer is empowered to reward people, they’re unlikely to be of much use.

VB: You make it clear that innovation is never the result of the eureka moment or of a lone genius, that much work by many others precedes important discoveries. You also say that it is not just luck that determines who makes a success. Rather, it is the ability to see opportunity and to define the problem, and the willingness to work hard that determines the winner. Are these the only typical traits of the successful innovator?

Scott Berkun:
Actually, I do talk about the role of luck in the book. Again, there are too many factors to control, so some element of luck is in play all the time. And people tend to take credit for luck when it helps them, but blame luck when it hurts them.

VB: What do you think is the most important personality trait of a successful innovator?

Scott Berkun:
Resilience. Talent is great, but a genius who gives up on a good idea isn’t as valuable as a less talented person who sticks it out. If we’re talking true innovations, ideas that change industries, it takes years for them to be developed and more to earn adoption in market. Resilience and humility—in the willingness to learn from mistakes and recognize the abilities of others—go a very long way.

VB: Do you think this trait can be learned or honed? Or do you think there are those who are made to innovate and those to watch, assist or use the innovations?

Scott Berkun:
Resilience is free. You don’t need a PhD to decide not to give up.

VB: What, in your opinion, is the most common mistake would-be innovators make?

Scott Berkun:
I’ll give you three: lack of self-awareness, ignoring history, and giving up.

VB: What do you think is the most important point you make in your book?

Scott Berkun:
There are learnable patterns for how creative people influence the world.

VB: Do you think it is possible for people to learn enough from books like your’s for them to make an intelligent difference in how the world functions—even if only in small ways?

Scott Berkun:
I sure hope so—that’s why I write them.

VB: What are you currently thinking and/or writing about?

Scott Berkun:
Creative thinking, the history of religion and experimental philosophy.

This is a concise and meaty book. Scott Berkun has the happy knack of clearly, simply and entertainingly presenting complex and interesting ideas.

Quote from [The Myths of Innovation]: “It doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you start.” - John Cage

[Scott Berkun] teaches at the University of Washington, provides high energy talks, workshops, courses and consulting services. He was a member of the Internet Explorer team at Microsoft from 1994-1999.

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