Monday, July 21, 2008

Book review: The Myths of Innovation, Scott Berkun. Submitted by Helene Cahen, as part of the CRS 625 Current Issues class, Summer 08

Berkun, S. (2007). The myths of innovation. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media Inc.

In a world where innovation is such a hot topic, Berkun examines some of the common and often unconscious myths surrounding the term. Berkun explains the reasoning behind the misconceptions and share his more realistic innovation perspectives, based on two years of research on the topic. The author’s intent is to “clarify how innovation happens so that you’ll better understand the world around you and can avoid mistakes should you attempt innovation yourself” (p. xii).

Myth 1: the myth of epiphany. Innovation happens suddenly
Reason for the myth: people loves stories and to believe in magic. It also helps to further popularize new ideas.
The reality of innovation: innovation never stands alone. It comes from past learnings, hard work, understanding of the problem and work to expand on ideas.

Myth 2: We understand the history of innovation. “Progress happens in a straight line” p.25
Reasons for the myth:
-Dominant designs dominate history.
-It makes it easier to teach
-Historians have their own biases.
The reality of innovation: the history of innovation is not linear but rather “chaotic, competitive and unpredictable” (p.31) and incomplete. Failures are not captured; dominant inventions are often linked to circumstances and market situation.

Myth 3: There is a method for innovation which will remove risk
Reason for the myth: “fantasy sells faster than truth” p.37
The reality of innovation: there are no systematic methods to innovation, but rather different ways to begin, eight challenges to consider and four paths that can be used.

Myth 4: People love new ideas
Reason for the myth: “we confuse truly new ideas with good ideas that already been proven, which just happen to be new to us” p.55
The reality of innovation: mature companies tend to resist change. The pace of new innovation adoption is usually slow, and driven by psychological and sociological reasons.

Myth 5: The lone inventor
Reason for the myth: It is convenient as it offers good “PR” for the inventor and good stories for journalists.
The reality of innovation: Inventors rarely work alone and their work can rely on many previous inventions. Attribution to a lone inventor is problematic because inventions often happen simultaneously

Myth 6: Good ideas are hard to find
Reason for the myth: People look for good ideas rather than looking for any ideas and filtering them later.
The reality of innovation: Finding ideas is about an attitude, an openess and the ability to look at new perspectives in addition to talent.

Myth 7: Your boss knows more about innovation than you
Reason for the myth: The idea that power and knowledge (or experience) only exist together.
The reality of innovation: Managers often resist change. Focus should be on creating an environment where ideas can grow safely and on executing and selling the ideas.

Myth 8: The best ideas win
Reason for the myth: Based on the concept that “goodness wins” and the belief in meritocracy prevalent in the US culture.
The reality of innovation: Secondary factors are critical to success, including culture, dominant design, economics and short term thinking, etc. Often success is a compromise between these secondary factors.

Myth 9: Problems and solutions. Problem solving is critical
Reason for the myth: many believe that they are given problems to solve.
The reality of innovation: picking the right problem and framing it is critical. Innovators often choose problems others ignore. Prototypes can be used to explore problems.

Myth 10: Innovation is always good
Reason for the myth: the belief in a “goodness scale” (p.138) where innovation can be easily rated.
The reality of innovation: Innovation does not have morality build-in and often has unpredictable consequences, some good and some bad, depending on the perspective chosen.

I would recommend this easy and enjoyable book to creativity students and participants of a CPS session, since it provides some relevant background, along with a broad perspective about creativity and innovation. This book considers many of the principles that would be included in CPS related work. Principles include the idea that everybody can be creative, the importance of defining and framing the problem first, and the importance of coming up with many ideas before filtering them. The author has studied some of the creativity literature and refers to Osborn’s (1957) Applied Imagination as “a fantastic read and a forgotten classic” p.91. This book also provides a broad point of view that includes historical, business, culture and technology perspectives, coupled with many examples helpful in gaining a broad understanding of innovation. This book is a good complement to Stenberg and Lubart (1999) historical perspective around creativity, because of the author’s focus on innovation. While Berkun does not define innovation, it is according to Nystrom, “the result and implementation of creativity” (as cited by Runco, 2006, p.383), or according to Runco is different from creativity “in the balance of originality-to-effectiveness.” The book therefore addresses issues relevant to the success of the outcome, particularly as it relates to business and sciences. By raising awareness of the myths of innovation, the reader is compelled to examine his/her own assumptions and keep a more open-mind. It provided an interesting historical perspective, with current examples related to themes that I have seen emerging in recent peer-reviewed literature, and at the Creativity and Innovation Management conference: importance of team work in innovation, role of leaders in helping ideas grow and develop, importance of the environment.
Finally it raised the need for further reflection on two topics:
-The value of innovation and its unpredictable impact. As we encourage creativity in others and ourselves, we may want to remember that the outcomes of innovation may be positive or negative in ways that we cannot anticipate. It is also our responsibility to balance innovation with appreciation of the past.
-The psychological and sociological importance, as well as the randomness in the success of innovation. Berkun reminds us that innovation is more likely to succeed if the psychological cost of adoption is low (no cultural barriers, easiness to try and change habits or way of thinking, etc.) and the sociological importance is high (fashion, status, etc). This is an invitation to think broadly about the environment which may support or impede creativity and to better accept failure.


Berkun, S. (2007). The myths of innovation. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media Inc.
Runco, M.A. (2007). Creativity theories and themes: Research, development and practice. San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press.
Stenberg, R.J., & Lubart, T.I (1999). The concept of creativity: Prospects and paradigms. In R.J. Stenberg (Ed.), Handbook of creativity (pp.3-15). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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