Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Review: The Myths of Innovation

written by Graduate Student Rob Kubiak

Scott Berkun, through copious notes, interviews, and references, has put together a great book that debunks the myths of innovation. Throughout the book he uses myths and presents examples to help explain how innovation happens, or the factors involved which do not allow for innovation to happen. He also explores some of the reasons for why myths are popular and then provides insights on how to approach aspects of innovation without necessarily faltering along the way.

The book was a fun and enjoyable read for a variety of reasons. Each chapter Berkun explores one myth and brings examples from history into present-day analysis. The book begins with a preface that explains what his aims are for the book: (1) identify myths about innovation; (2) explain why they’re popular; and (3) explore and teach from the truth. His approach and writing style have a sense of humor to it. At times it brought a light chuckle, but at other times, I wish he would have stuck to some facts to drive home certain points rather than amuse himself with his own writing.

In the opening chapter, Berkun sets the stage for the book by explaining a recent tour he took at the Google headquarters. He tells the story of Google having various gadgets for employees to play with, having outlets for laptops in odd places like stairwells, and other descriptions of the Google environment that fosters creativity such as bean bag chairs, Ping-Pong tables, laptops, and Nerf toys. Two men who were on the tour take in the scene at Google and one man asks the other, “I see them talking and typing, but where do they come up with their ideas?”

This sets the stage for the premise of Berkun’s book. From that point forward, he take time in each chapter to debunk myths of innovation and uses stories of Newton’s “discovery” of gravity, Einstein’s approach to defining problems before working on them, Archimedes’ “eureka” moment in his bathtub, and other interesting anecdotes to get his point across.

The chapters outline each of the myths of innovation: The myth of epiphany; We understand the history of innovation; There is a method for innovation; People love new ideas; The lone inventor; Good ideas are hard to find; Your boss knows more about innovation than you; The best ideas win; Problems and solutions; Innovation is always good.

For those studying the field of creativity or innovation, there are plenty parts of the book that you can highlight and find useful to refer back to from time to time. One such example for me included a section on 3M, and the philosophy of William McKnight, 3M’s general manager, who was able to capture his management philosophy in a simple speech that he gave in 1948 (www.answers.com/topic/william-l-mcknight).

The book is a fun read, and Berkun has a very witty writing style. His stories and personal experiences help to explain some of his counter-intuitive deconstruction of myths. For the casual reader who likes to breeze through a book, Berkun’s style of using numerous footnotes to add context to his writing may detract some people from finishing the book, but oftentimes the footnotes contain valuable information and identify opportunities for the reader to learn more.

Overall, I enjoyed Berkun’s book and his debunking method of the myths of innovation, and would recommend the read to both the casual reader wanting to learn more about innovation, as well as members of the creative field who want to take a break from more heady topics.

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