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Book Review: The Myths of Innovation

Lina Coelho takes a look at Scott Berkun's challenging view of what innovation and creativity really mean.

The clue is in the title. This book sets out to dispel the myths about creativity and innovation which you have cherished so dearly. It tells you what 'not to do and what not to think' so that you can free yourself from common misguided notions on the subject. As a special bonus, this new paperback edition includes four new chapters which provide the practical tips you would need to help your ideas take off. It also carries the added reassurance that the author had corrected more than 40 issues compared to the hardback version through offering better evidence and examples and providing more accessible references. Scott Berkun's insights can be trusted not only because he has already written three bestselling books and made regular contributions to a range of publications, but also because of his background in teaching creative thinking at the University of Washington and his experience of working at Microsoft on Internet Explorer.

Having come to the conclusion that the 'the i-word is thrown around so frequently it no longer means anything', the author sets out to demolish the 10 most pervasive and misleading myths about it. In each chapter, he addresses one of the myths and using examples, comments and facts, puts forward ideas which might, at first glance, seem iconoclastic.

First to come under attack is the myth of epiphany – the notion that innovation comes from nowhere, or at least from some hidden and magical place – namely, being in the right place at the right time. Not so, says Berkun, the truth is far less glamorous – hard work, personal risk and sacrifice are all it takes. And although many of the myths around innovation have persisted because of their entertainment value – from Newton and his apple to Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web, the journey of de-bunking the myths is even more entertaining. The moral for inventors-to-be is to keep working whilst waiting for the breakthrough.

The second chapter deals with the misconception that we understand the history of innovation and that the significance of everything is evident at the time of creation. Having long believed that the Rosetta Stone helped decipher hieroglyphics, I had to re-adjust my thinking in order to accept the view that, at the time of its creation, it was nothing more than pharaoh propaganda. It is indeed difficult to imagine, from where we are standing today, that progress does not happen in a straight line. Berkun's next target is the idea that there is an 'innovation method'. The truth is that the journey only starts with finding an idea, the hard work comes later in developing a solution, finding the money, creating a cheap enough product, reaching potential customers, beating competitors and staying the course in difficult times.

It is tempting to believe that everybody loves a new idea; in fact Berkun cites many examples to prove exactly the opposite – leaps of the imagination frighten us and prevent us from taking leaps of faith. Enthusiasm for an idea only grows once it has been proven successful. Potential innovators need not worry about others stealing their ideas, they will have to 'ram them down people's throats'. The reasons for rejection can be many and varied: personal, political or economic. The innovator's dilemma as dramatised in the face-off between Western Union and Alexander Bell – as the captains of an ageing innovation protect their work from the threat of an emerging idea. The paradigm shift which is necessary in order to open up the way for an invention can be so profound that ensuring adoption might be much harder than coming up with an innovative idea. This inevitably leads to the painfully slow diffusion of innovation that depends on the relative advantage of the new idea, the complexity of the switch from old to new, the risk of taking the leap, and the ease of demonstrating advantage.

Chapter Five sees the myth of the lone inventor exploded through many historical examples, so Karl Benz takes the place of Henry Ford in the history of the automobile and Davy and Swan displace Edison as the inventor of the light bulb. But the truth is even more complex than that, as no inventor stands alone, he or she just follows in a line of incremental discoveries with only the names of those who had the best publicity machines or were in the right place at the right time remaining on the record. Often it is only shorthand that we equate Google with the invention of the search engine, Nintendo with the video game and Apple with the GUI.

According to Einstein 'imagination is more important than knowledge'. It is harder to overcome the fear of inconsistencies, the departures from convention and the rigidity of adult certainties in order to grasp a new idea. New ideas require new perspectives and new perspectives need flexibility. The best way to have a good idea is to have many bad ideas – 40:1 if we are to take the example which gives the name of this product, WD-40, the trademark of a water-displacing solvent which took 40 attempts to create. Being accepting of others' as well as of your own ideas is the best way to innovate. Management and innovation have an uneasy relationship. Professional management embodies the desire to optimise and control, not to pursue experimentation and new, often seemingly unproductive, paths. This is one reason why established companies which are too big and risk-averse, set up spin-offs, small agile outfits which hot-house innovation.

Another big misconception, which feeds on our idealistic beliefs, is that the best ideas win'. Chapter eight addresses this myth with examples of how history helps us remember the good and forget the bad. If it is a mystery to you why we use the qwerty keyboard, consider the prosaic explanation that long after the necessity for it has been removed, as the mechanics of the typewriter are well behind us, it still persists on our computer keyboards. Culture, dominant design, inheritance and tradition, the politics of power, economics and short-term thinking often force the path of successful innovation. Full consideration of the effects and consequences of an invention can be rather limiting, as being able to look into the future will put any invention into the straight jacket of ensuring use for 'good' and minimising use for 'evil'.

A piece of useful advice for future innovators comes in chapter 9 which suggests that time used for defining the problem is well spent as it helps find the right solution. Focusing on a gap, on a need, on an issue ensures that the solution suggested has a chance, in a crowded scene of solutions, in tipping the odds in its favour.

The final four chapters contain advice for those who want to put what they have learned from this book into practice. There is a plan of action, a condensed creativity course, a list of creative thinking hacks and advice on how to pitch an idea successfully. If you are an ideas person, but not an excellent communicator or insightful planner, make sure you work with others who are. When it comes to staying motivated, use everything you've got: anger, necessity, pride, discipline or a crazy friend, Berkun shows you how.

A couple of things made this book special for me. Firstly, the meticulously presented research and recommendations including a ranked bibliography which notes the influence of a number of authors and works on Berkun. And secondly, the special praise for our profession as 'the elves who make interlibrary loans possible'.

The author finally appeals to all readers to work for the popularity of this book. As I am unlikely to influence Oprah in choosing it for her book club or Jon Stewart in inviting the author to his programme, I am doing my bit by writing this review.

Author Details

Lina Coelho
BMA Library

Email: lcoelho@bma.org.uk

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