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The myths of innovation, by Scott Berkun

A great book of insights, history and reasoning about the process of innovation. I think Scott Berkun chooses the perfect way to go about describing innovation — debunking the myths and half-truths that have cropped up about it since the term became overly abused in corporate and business communication. The work is far from merely showing the negative though, Berkun shines light on the subject via this process. Debunking the myths is only the first step to get you thinking in the right direction.

There are ten chapters in the book, all of them focused around a specific idea or myth. Many of these ideas are interrelated, however and here are the central ideas that I took from the book.

Innovation is a result of much hard work, not a random epiphany. This is the first chapter but the point is made throughout the book. The ‘epiphany’ to which innovation is often attributed (apple falling on Newton’s head, Archimedes’ eureka moment) is at best the final piece in a large jigsaw puzzle in which assembling the other pieces was hard work, and the puzzle would never be complete without any single missing piece. This goes beyond one person; the book makes a compelling argument that many innovations are the result of the labors of many people who contributed to the field before (standing on the shoulders of giants), as seen so often in science where many revelations were seemingly simultaneously arrived at by people working independently. Moreover, many breakthroughs are often the result of teams rather than individuals.

Seen in the bigger context, innovation follows a densely branched structure rather than a linear path. The histories try to conveniently explain away innovation by means of a simplistic story, but the reality is much more complex. Many innovations happen by accident — Flickr was started originally as an MMORPG before it’s creators realized it would make an amazing photo sharing service by itself. There were many designs for the automobile before Henry Ford’s, running on everything from electricity to steam to gasoline. There is usually a multitude of ideas around a problem that co-exist before one idea wins out and history marks its inventors as innovators. Sometimes, the best ideas don’t win. Adoption of an innovation is subject to cultural, political and economical forces; the QWERTY keyboard is far from the most efficient way to type yet it doesn’t look likely to be replaced with any so-called “better” alternatives.

“Creativity is the child in the park.” One of my favourite quotes from the book, it makes the point that innovation is about experimentation, playfulness, and willingness to examine ideas and throw them away without tiring. It’s important to be broad-minded rather than narrow-minded, to be wiling to adapt and change. One of the hardest-hitting points that Scott Berkun makes is that former innovators are the least likely to recognize innovation in their field even if it’s staring at them in the face, because they believe in their own way so much that they’re blinded to new possibilities. Which is why, time and time again, behemoth-sized companies are regularly beaten by nimbler startups, (think Barnes and Noble vs. Amazon, Nokia vs Apple, Western Union vs Alexander Bell).

The arguments made in the book, though by no means foolproof, are nevertheless compelling, and more importantly, thought provoking. If nothing else, the book gets different circuits buzzing in your brain, and that’s worth every page.

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” — Goethe

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