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The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun

by Sheldon Nesdale on 14 May 2009

in Business Book Summaries, Business Strategy, Marketing

My Notes on “The Myths of Innovation” by Scott Berkun:berkun-myths-210x315-200x300

Myth #1: The Myth of the Epiphany

  • An epiphany only comes when you’ve put in all the hard work. It’s just the final piece in a 1000 piece puzzle
  • When inventors are asked how they came up with their idea they say “it just came to me”, and have some interesting story about how the idea formed in their head. They don’t say “after 1000 hours of research the idea became obvious”, because it’s boring. Stories about epiphany’s are interesting and exciting and give us hope that we will have one
  • The most useful way to think of epiphany is an occasional bonus of working on tough problems


Myth #2: We Understand the History of Innovation

  • Don’t think of history as a single line from the past to the present, think of it as thousands of branches on an enormous tree.  Thousands of those branches of innovation come to nothing, and a few innovations become mainstream.
  • Timelines show only one path of the full tree of innovation and ignore all the failed attempts.

Myth #3: There is a Method For Innovation

  • Nope. The best advice is “It doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you start” – John Cage
  • The majority of innovations come from dedicated people in a field working hard to solve a well-defined problem. Not sexy, but it’s the truth.
  • Sometimes, during that hard work, an unexpected opportunity emerges and is pursued midway through the work. Eg Art Fry at 3M invented weak glue that he didn’t know what to do with. Post It’s were born. Tea bags were first used as packaging for loose tea samples. Microwaves were an unexpected discharge from a radar system that melted the scientists chocolate bar in his pocket
  • Innovations can be driven by curiosity, wealth and money, necessity, or a combination

Myth #4: People Love New Ideas

  • Nope. Because it disturbs the status quo. And companies who you think might buy your innovation can’t change direction – it’s too risky. So often, inventors start their own companies because they can’t sell their ideas
  • 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.

5 Factors That Define How Quickly An Innovation Will Spread

  • Relative Advantage. What value does the new thing have compared to the old? This is perceived advantage, determined by the potential consumer of the innovation, not its makers. This makes it possible for a valueless innovation – from the creator’s perspective – to gain acceptance, while more valuable ones do not. Perceived advantage is built on factors that  include economics, prestige, convenience, fashion, and satisfaction
  • Compatibility. How much effort is required to transition from the current thing to the innovation? If this cost is greater than the relative advantage, most people won’t try the innovation. These costs include people’s value systems, finances, habits, or personal beliefs. Technological compatibility is only part of what makes an innovation spread: the innovation has to be compatible with habits, beliefs, values, and lifestyles.
  • Complexity. How much learning is required to apply the innovation? If a box of free, high-quality, infinite battery-life cell phones (and matching solar-powered cell towers) mysteriously appeared in 9th century England, usage would stay at 0%, as the innovation requires a jump in complexity that would terrify people. The smaller the perceived conceptual gap, the higher the rate of acceptance.
  • Trialability. How easy is it to try the innovation? Teabags were first used as giveaways so people could sample tea without buying large tins, radically improving the trialability of brewed tea.  Samples, giveaways, and demonstrations are centuries old techniques for making it risk-free to try new ideas. The easier it is to try, the faster innovations diffuse.
  • Observability. How visible are the results of the innovation? The more visible the perceived advantage, the faster the rate of adoption, especially within social groups. Fashion fads are a great example of highly observable innovations that have little value beyond their observability. Advertising fakes observability. Many technologies have limited observability, say, software device drivers, compared to physical products like mobile phones which people use socially.

Myth #5: The Lone Inventor

  • Edison didn’t work alone – but he did get all the credit. Hundreds of mini inventions paved the way for him – filaments, glass blowing, electricity etc
  • It is convenient to tell the story of the lone inventor though – Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, etc. Neil Armstrong was the first to walk on the moon, but 500,000 people at NASA helped.
  • Every component in an innovation (eg Television set) represents a long train of inventions. All inventions reuse ideas from the past

Myth #6: Good Ideas Are Hard to Find

  • Rubbish. Humans are highly creative.  Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

Idea Finding Techniques Used by Innovators

  • Brainstorming
    • Produce as many ideas as possible
    • Produce ideas as wild as possible
    • Build upon each others ideas
    • Avoid passing judgement
  • Journal
  • My field
  • Other fields
  • Collaboration
  • Experimentation
  • Improvisation
  • Prototyping
  • Mediation

Myth #7: Your Boss Knows More About Innovation Than You

  • It is natural for people to protect what they know instead of leaping into the unknown
  • Innovations always threaten someone in power

Myth #8: The Best Ideas Win

  • The best ideas don’t always win, but that doesn’t stop people from believing they should.  We believe that the good guys should win, but often they don’t
  • Fictional legends are in our face all the time that drive this myth: James Bond, MacGyver, Indiana Jones, John McClane (Die Hard), Captain Kirk. They all have better ideas so they win.
  • “If you build it, they will come” sentiment is alive and strong

7 Factors That Affect Innovation Diffusion

  • Culture. The Japanese invented firearms years before Europeans. But their culture saw the sword as a symbol of their values: craftsmanship, honour, and respect. Despite the advantages of using firearms, the innovation was ignored and seen as a disgraceful way to kill. Innovations do change societies, but they must first gain acceptance by aligning with existing values.
  • Dominant Design. The QWERTY keyboard was invented to stop typewriters sticking, but the design has stuck. Many dominant designs achieve popularity on the back of another innovation. Better designs might follow, but to gain acceptance, they must improve on that dominant idea by a sufficient margin to justify the cost of the switch (eg relearning how to type). The more dominant the design, the more expensive those costs are (eg try innovating or unifying the shape of electric plugs around the world)
  • Inheritance and tradition. The US rejection of the metric system is tied to tradition.  Some people confuse comfort for a belief with it actually being good; therefore, inherited ideas are often protected by the very people they hurt in the name of honouring the beliefs of their parents and the past
  • Politics: who benefits? The interests of those in power influenced the adoption, or rejection, of every innovation in history. Hunger, war and poverty are tough problems, but it’s in someone’s interest for those problems to continue. Any innovation aimed at solving those problems must consider politics for it to succeed.
  • Economics. Innovation is expensive. Will the costs of changing to the new thing be worth it? Everyone might agree that an innovation is better in the abstract, but the financing required might be impossible or the risks unreasonable. Dominant designs are expensive to replace. Often there is only time or money for innovating in one area; other innovations are rejected, not on their merits, but on their value to the priorities of the moment.
  • Goodness is subjective. Consumer difference sin values, tastes, and opinions are rarely explored until after an innovation has been proposed, or even built, leaving innovators with creations the public does not want. Smart innovators study their customers, mastering their needs early enough that hose factors can be useful.  Eg VHS was adopted because of the 3 hour tape – long enough for movies, whereas Beta tapes were 1 hour. The superior video quality wasn’t as important
  • Short-term vs long-term thinking. How long does this innovation need to be used for? Many superior ideas are rejected by societies interested in cheaper, shorter-term gains. Eg removing trolleys and trams for more car lanes – cities now regret that move.

Myth #9: Problems and Solutions

  • Discovering problems actually requires just as much creativity as discovering solutions. There are many ways to look at any problem, and realising a problem is often the first step toward a creative solution.  John Dewey “A properly defined problem is partially solved”
  • Frame the problem by picking strong goals – eg Edison’s goal wasn’t “make a working light bulb”, but “make an electricity system cities can use to adopt my lights”.  Hawkins (the inventor of Palm Pilot) wrote a list of goals: fits in a shirt pocket, syncs seamlessly with PC, fast and easy to use, no more than $299.

Myth #10: Innovation is Always Good

  • All innovations combine good and bad effects regardless of the intention of the innovator or how well designed they are
  • Innovations are unpredictable – eg DDT, automobiles, the internet

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