The Myths of Innovation

Written by Kelly Krout on November 2, 2018

In The Myths of Innovation, Scott Berkun shows you how to transcend the false stories that pop culture foolishly uses to guide our thinking about how breakthrough ideas came to be. Myths of innovation can become barriers to successful insights when they seem magical - let’s break them down to reality so that we can increase our power to innovate.

Book cover of The Myths of Innovation

Myth #1: The myth of the epiphany. One of the most persistent myths about innovation is that you have a sudden epiphany. A light bulb goes on and you suddenly see Amazon, the iPhone, or Facebook. In fact, the origin of the word epiphany was used to portray visions that came from divine forces. Epiphanies do occur, but after you’ve put in all the hard work of 1000’s of hours of studying a problem. It can seem like a magic moment, but it is just the final piece in a 1000-piece puzzle. Stories about sudden epiphanies are exciting, while the ones involving a long journey of hard work can seem boring. The story of Isaac Newton coming up with the laws of gravity when an apple fell on his head is well known; the 20 years of mathematical equations he worked through to get to that point is not.

Isaac Newton with apple falling from tree onto his head

Myth #2: We understand the history of innovation. History is heavily tainted by “survivorship bias”. Timelines typically show only one path to innovation and ignore all the failed attempts. History is not a straight line to a successful innovation, it contains thousands of branches that resulted in failures of ideas that we do not hear about.

Myth #3: There is a method for innovation. If there was way to shortcut to innovation, as many books, consulting firms, and workshops claim, then everyone could follow it and be innovative. You must focus on forming a well-defined problem first, and then work on solving it. Identify the customer, frame the problem, experiment with an array of potential concept solutions, and iterate towards a final solution. Through all, stay flexible and open, accept failure and learn from it, and pivot.

Myth #4: People love new ideas. In truth, people are naturally resistant to new ideas. Humans are a conservative species and avoiding risk is in our biology. Established companies would rather stick with what they know and what has led to their success than try something new with risk of failure. Conversely, a new startup company has not had success yet and is willing to take risk to try to get it. An established company spent years building themselves up based on their own initial startup risk-taking and innovation, and now they don’t want to endanger their success to charge into the unknown once again. For example, Larry Page and Sergey Brin tried to sell the new search engine Google to the established leading search engine Yahoo for $1 million dollars in 1998, and Yahoo declined. You know how the rest of the story went.

   Factors that can influence how quickly an innovation spreads:

  1. Relative advantage. What value does the new thing have compared to the old? This is perceived advantage, determined by the customer of the innovation. Perceived advantage is built on many factors that include price, utility, and quality.
  2. 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 not just technological compatibility but also people’s beliefs, finances, and habits.
  3. Complexity. How much learning is required to apply the innovation? The smaller the perceived gap, the higher the rate of acceptance.
  4. 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. The easier it is to try, the faster innovations spread.
  5. Observability. How visible are the results of the innovation? The more visible the perceived advantage, the faster the rate of adoption. Marketing, demos, and conferences can provide a bridge to visibility before actual usage.

Myth #5: The lone inventor. It’s simpler to tell the story of a lone inventor. People don’t work alone, and all the greatest innovations are result of a collaboration. Einstein, J.K. Rowling, and Taylor Swift had family, teachers, and peers who taught and worked with them. Edison’s patents are shared with co-workers and he worked with them in a research lab. Neil Armstrong was the first to walk on the moon, but numerous people at NASA helped get him there. Learning to collaborate, and give and receive feedback, is critical in the journey to successful innovation.

Taylor Swift singing

Myth #6: Good ideas are hard to find. Humans are highly creative. Einstein said, “imagination is more important than knowledge”. Hang out with a young child for a day and you’ll see their creativity and flow of ideas. The conventions of adult life can create conformity and cause us to sacrifice our creative instincts in favor of social status. Unlike a child, adults can be judgmental, and kill ideas. A misconception is that a new idea should be wholly new, when in fact many innovations draw on old ideas and combine them in new ways. A car has always combined a motor with wheels and electric cars had been attempted before, yet Tesla is now revolutionizing the car industry. Another misconception is that a world-changing breakthrough will look like one. However, great innovations of the past, like the computer, didn’t arrive as a finished product when it took up a huge room and required major expertise to use it.

Early computer that takes up an entire room and looks very complex to operate

   Techniques that can lead to an innovation:

  1. Generate many ideas. You can’t know which ideas will prove useful or will provide a jumping-off point for other ideas. A small group could come up with 50 to 100 ideas within an hour.
  2. Aim for wild ideas. By encouraging unorthodox thinking, you can let people’s imaginations fly and overcome their natural fear of suggesting something wrong or foolish. This will help unleash ideas that could be held back.
  3. Build on each other’s ideas. Combine ideas in various ways or use an idea as a jumping-off place for a new idea. By lighting the fire, another person can grow it.
  4. Don’t judge. Don’t try to assess the strengths, weaknesses, or feasibility of ideas during generation. Wait to do that after you’ve built your stockpile of ideas.

Myth #7: Your boss knows more about innovation than you. Innovations always threaten someone in power and its human nature to protect what they’ve accomplished. The office can be a difficult place to nurture innovative thinking. Management techniques can often be designed to foster a smooth, efficient workflow, and not to shake things up. To promote innovation, instead of rote production, a manager should foster an environment that encourages creativity and experimentation.

   Work environments that can nurture an innovation:

  1. Cultivate ideas. Managers should take steps to ensure a continuous flow of ideas. People shouldn’t be afraid to express their thoughts, and no one should squish ideas before they’re investigated.
  2. Establish a conducive space. Managers need to nurture a physical workplace that contributes to the creative process. An open team room space and toys to tinker with create a fun and adventurous atmosphere. Google has a 10% personal project time.
  3. Support people. Managers must provide cover for their innovators, shielding them from others who fear change.
  4. Guide the process. Managers must guide an idea from an abstract concept to concrete reality. This involves attending to the details and judgments you deliberately ignored during the brainstorming phase.
  5. Pitch it. Managers need to connect the right stakeholders together to be on board with the innovation to push it forward.

Myth #8: Innovation is always good. Innovations can have both positive as well as unintended negative effects. The automobile was invented to better connect people and goods together with more efficient transportation, but it also kills thousands of people every year in accidents and has been a major contributor to pollution. Facebook was created to build community and bring the world closer together, but it also has been utilized in invading privacy, hate speech, and fake news.

Myth #9: The best ideas win. Success doesn’t necessarily come from being the “best” solution to a problem. Circumstances in the environment of a certain time and place such as culture, politics, and economics have tremendous influence on why one idea wins, yet these details are more complex than we want to hear and fade from history. The quality of an idea is only a part of the reason an innovation becomes successful.

   Barriers that an innovation must overcome to win:

  1. Culture. Cultural values and norms can block the path of innovation. For example, the Chinese invented firearms before Europeans. However, the firearms did not catch on, because their culture viewed traditional weapons such as the sword as more honorable.
  2. Dominance. Sometimes an innovation gets established because it was part of another popular innovation. The QWERTY keyboard became the dominant keyboard because of the popularity of typewriters. Although the Dvorak keyboard has been shown to be more efficient, the barrier of making everyone learn a new keyboard is too high.
  3. Tradition. Replacing a system that has been in use a long time can be difficult, particularly if people are comfortable with it. This barrier is a reason for Americans’ reluctance to switch to the metric system of measurement.
  4. Politics. Some ideas must overcome resistance by people in power. Those who profit from the current setup, even if it is inefficient or harmful, will not want to replace it. Healthcare, war, pollution, and poverty are solvable problems, but somehow these problems continue.
  5. Economics. Even if an innovation is better than its current competitor, it can’t succeed if it’s too expensive to make or purchase.
  6. Value prioritization. Sometimes different value propositions conflict. VHS succeeded even though Beta had a superior picture, because customers prioritized the longer recording time of VHS higher.
  7. Short-term vs. long-term thinking. A society may be more interested in a short-term gain than in an innovation that delays gratification for long-term benefits.

Myth #10: It’s all about the solution. Discovering problems requires just as much creativity as discovering solutions. The impatient run at full speed into solving things, speeding right past the insights needed to find a great solution. Case in point is the Apple Newton which had multiple problems stemming from incomplete solutions. “We barely got it functioning when we started shipping it”, remarked Newton’s head of development. However, Apple likely learned from the Newton in its path to the iPhone. Realizing a problem is the first step toward a creative solution. Einstein said, “If I had 20 days to solve a problem, I would take 19 to define it.” Form hypothesis problem statements that include the customer, problem, task, and signal for knowing whether it’s true, and then do research to determine if it can be validated or not.

Apple Newton

Successful innovation is possible for anyone to achieve! Put in the long hours to study a problem, experiment with different solutions, be persistent, and learn from failures. It’s all up to you…