The myths of innovation are ubiquitous. Everyone thinks they know what innovation is and means yet in fact innovation is probably one of the most overrated business concepts. ‘Poor is the substance, alas! and yet I’ve read all the books,’ the warning sent by French poet Stéphane Mallarmé would be perfectly valid for most of the literature devoted to innovation. There are books on that subject; however, which are worth reading such as the inevitable myths of innovation by Scott Berkun. We published this piece for the first time in 2010. We are republishing it because of its relevance in the current context of 2022.
The Myths of Innovation is a must-read for would-be innovators
Berkun is a full-time writer and speaker and former program manager at Microsoft, the man behind the success of Internet Explorer at a time when the Web was dominated by Netscape.
He also delivers lectures such as this amazing Carnegie Mellon presentation (per below) on the book I am describing here.
His book is not based on dubious principles but spells out clearly the dos and don’ts of innovation. It’s a lot more powerful than most books because of that because it’s easier to learn from mistakes than mimic other people’s behaviour.
Here are Scott Berkun’s ten myths of innovation summed up in a few words, and I hope this will convince you to buy a copy of his book too.
All ten myths described by Scott Berkun in his book
Myth number one: the myth of the epiphany. An epiphany, in essence, a sudden moment at which creation is supposed to happen, is epitomised by Archimedes’s Eureka moment or Newton’s apple.
If many innovations are described as magical moments, the truth is often more complex: hard work is required, the Eureka moment is often coming at the end of that process (not the beginning).
Most Eureka legends aren’t real; they are myths aimed at giving a romantic view of innovation,
We understand nothing about the history of innovation
Myth number 2: we understand the history of innovation. Well, so we think, but most of the time we don’t.
Most of the stories we read about innovation aren’t real either.
Google wasn’t a search engine to start with, nor was Flickr a photo-sharing platform, etc.
In fact, most innovations are the results of errors, changes, and corrections, but we like history to smooth things out and make them sound perfect and simple.
Myth number 3: there is a method for innovation.
How does one deliver innovation? Despite our attraction to recipes, innovation is, in essence, a ‘charge into the unknown’ and therefore, a method for innovation is a bit of an oxymoron,
Myth number 4: people love new ideas, so we like to think, but most of the time it’s not true.
Changing one’s habits is always a challenge, and that is true of customers too (remember Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the chasm?)
There is no end to the list of rejections that innovators have to face. Change management is an innovator’s best friend,
The lone inventor
Myth number 5: the lone inventor. We like stories in which a genius single-handedly changed the world: Edison invented the electric light; Ford invented the automobile; Apple invented the first graphical user interface, etc.
All wrong! And most of these stories are wrong.
Often, innovations happen simultaneously, too (in different countries at approximately the same time).
Lastly, successful companies are often started by a group of people, not the obligatory lone inventor.
Myth number 6: good ideas are hard to find.
Ideas are everywhere, and not just found as a result of a brainstorm session (a tool which most of the time is badly used and implemented).
Ideas come in more than many ways, mostly through trial and error.
As far as I am concerned, because I am not a very imaginative person, I love to pick other people’s brains and make notes of all the ideas they have had but have never had the pluck to implement.
‘It would be so nice if we could do this and that and the other’ is often my starting point. The real issue is not the idea(s) but how they could come to fruition and when.
Those who know better, most of the time, know nothing
Myth number 7: your boss knows more about innovation than you do.
Berkun argues that managers can make decisions that others can’t, but this doesn’t mean that they always know what to do.
Often, power and a high position in the hierarchy exert pressure on execs, and they feel terribly alone.
I have witnessed that the higher in the hierarchy, the further away you are from the field, the easier it is to lose sight of reality; theoretical views don’t make decision-making easy.
Often, managers are, therefore, afraid of innovation.
Berkun provides the antidote by describing the most necessary common traits of successful managers,
Myth number 8: the best ideas win.
There is a fairy tale view of innovation (in fairy tales good guys win, and bad guys lose) hence the belief that it’s always the best innovation that wins.
There are seven factors according to Berkun which are leading to product success: culture, dominant design, inheritance and tradition, politics, economics, subjectivity and short-term orientation.
Problems and solutions
Myth number 9: problems and solutions.
Great innovations — such as the palm pilot project, a pioneering digital notepad of the 1990s — often come from the clear and simple spelling of a few problems that they are meant to solve.
Believing that serendipity plays a major role is also wrong and yet another proof of the myth of the epiphany. Hard work and prototyping are of the essence.
Myth number 10: innovation is always good.
Rumour has it that Rudolf Diesel committed suicide when he realised that only the military was interested in his innovation.
He thought that this would serve the purpose of the war between Germany and France. Diesel was a German national but he’d almost lived in France all his life.
His innovation was being used to do harm and kill people and destroy Europe, not to do good and improve people’s lives.
Other examples abound quoted by Berkun in his book — such as the DDT and personal computers and even cell phones, not to mention discrimination via the infamous digital divide.
In conclusion: true innovators don’t use the word innovation
Such are the lessons we can derive from Scott Berkun’s research on innovation. In one of his posts on the Harvard Business Review blog, Berkun declared that true innovators don’t use the word innovation at all.
They talk about new products, new projects, change management, or just doing things. Innovation isn’t a playground for intellectuals; it’s a game for doers and hard workers.
I found the statements so true, and so close to how I felt (sometimes event organisers ask me to pitch about innovation and I feel weird about that because innovation is something one does but is very difficult to describe) that I decided to know more and buy this book.
Now, the Myths of Innovation is one of my favourite business books.
Find out more
- ‘Why innovation is overrated’ by Scott Berkun
- download a free summary of the book
- the ‘Myths of innovation’ video at Carnegie Mellon, a presentation by Scott
- buy ‘the Myths of innovation’ from Amazon.