Demolition Derby

Book Review: The Myths of Innovation

Before I even opened this book, I had three reasons to like it. First, Scott Berkun is “one of us”. As a former Microsoft project manager responsible for overseeing early versions of Internet Explorer, he has a strong background in usability, information architecture, and design. His first book, “The Art of Project Management“:http://tinyurl.com/37q6j9 (also “reviewed”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/the_art_of_project_management on Boxes and Arrows), might have been more appropriately titled, The Art of Project Management for Design-Intensive Projects. You might also know Berkun as the creator of the “Interactionary design contests”:http://www.uiweb.com/dsports/interactionary2001.htm held at “ACM’s SIGCHI conferences”:http://sigchi.org/conferences/. He comes from our world and many of his examples are drawn from individuals and organizations familiar to the IA and UX communities. Second, on a more personal level, the book includes two of my photos: See the title pages for chapters 5 and 6. The inclusion of these photos resulted from a request on “Berkun’s blog”:http://www.scottberkun.com/blog/ calling for Flickr-based photos, with two being plucked from my current collection of 3000+ images. Very exciting! Finally, The Myths of Innovation is a short, light book and a handy airplane read. Enough said.

The importance of innovation

Innovation is a hot topic at the moment. Actually, innovation has been a big thing for last hundred years or more, but perhaps we needed the profusion of business magazines and books to bring this observation into sharp focus. With the tech sector on the ascendancy (again), driven in part by the Web 2.0 movement, examples of innovation are everywhere. We’ve moved beyond the notion of the knowledge economy to recognize that innovative ideas can be the foundation for disruptive business models. This factor makes Berkun’s book timely, as it sheds light on the underpinning truths that surround innovation. This is what the dust jacket promises:

In The Myths of Innovation, bestselling author Scott Berkun takes a careful look at innovation history, including the software and Internet ages, to reveal how ideas truly become successful innovations–truths that you can apply to today’s challenges.
Using dozens of examples from the history of technology, business, and the arts, you’ll learn how to convert the knowledge you have into ideas that can change the world.

So, does it deliver?

Debunking myths

To explain how innovation works, Berkun starts in the opposite direction and first exposes ten commonly-held beliefs about innovation:
1. The myth of epiphany
2. We understand the history of innovation
3. There is a method for innovation
4. People love new ideas
5. The lone inventor
6. Good ideas are hard to find
7. Your boss knows more about innovation than you
8. The best ideas win
9. Problems and solutions
10. Innovation is always good

In each chapter a myth is introduced and then progressively unraveled and debunked with great wit and charm. This approach helps to structure the book and it offers an easy way to explore innovation. Berkun has a fluid writing style and finds the right balance between informality and powerful word-smithing.

Berkun uses a range of examples from the Renaissance to eBay and Craigslist. Each case study is carefully researched and accompanied by footnotes pointing to further reading. In many instances, Berkun takes unexpected angles on historical cases, presenting new perspectives on stories that have been told and retold for more than a generation. For example, most people are familiar with the story of Post-it notes: The 3M miracle product that evolved from a glue that didn’t stick properly. Far fewer know about the product that preceded Post-it notes (masking tape), and the company’s corporate history. 3M actually stands for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing and the company started out drilling for underground minerals to manufacture grinding wheels. It was only after a lab assistant needed a way to mark borders for two-tone car painting that masking tape was developed and the rest became history. Another example explores the challenges in getting the telegraph adopted and how the company built on that discovery, Western Union, eventually became the protector of the status quo when new innovations came along–namely the telephone.

Through these examples, Berkun demonstrates that while inventions seem inevitable after the fact, the path to adoption is almost never certain. Great ideas fail, while commercial imperatives drive the success of other innovations.

Providing answers

Readers looking for an innovation checklist or a how-to book will be dissatisfied. One of the myths that Berkun debunks is that there can be a step-by-step guide to innovation. Instead, innovation is a complicated and unpredictable process with many paths–more jigsaw puzzle than a straight line. By its nature, innovation explores uncharted territory. It is also the product of a lot hard work, unexpected insights, the collaboration of many individuals, and sheer, random chance.

When I reached the end of the book, I was disappointed to discover there was not a summary chapter wrapping up its message; something akin to, “So therefore, based on these myths, this is how you need to do innovation in practice.” While a concluding chapter would have neatly closed the narrative arc at the end of the book, Berkun was right not have included one. Instead, the onus is on the reader to review the book again and allow the many gems scattered throughout the text sink in more.

In particular, Berkun outlines a number of key principles and barriers to innovation. They are presented in unassuming lists that belie their value. For example, he outlines eight challenges all innovations must confront and overcome, including sponsorship and funding, capacity for reproduction, and reaching the potential customer. In addition to these challenges, Berkun discusses elements that can influence the speed of adoption, challenges associated with managing innovation, and factors that have influenced historical innovations. Berkun also offers a comprehensive set of checkpoints that can be used to assess approaches to innovation.

What we can learn

There are many heroes idolized within our industry, whether it’s Flickr, eBay, Craigslist, 37 Signals, IDEO, Yahoo, Google, or any of the hundreds of Web 2.0 businesses. All of these organizations are regarded as paragons of innovation, featured prominently at conferences and in case studies. Berkun points out that while much can be learned from these organizations, the myths that surround them can also blindly lead us down the wrong path. If we recreate the funky, fun-filled spaces of the Googleplex, do we automatically become innovative? If we develop functionalities that mimic Flickr, will we be able to take on the world?

When starting down the path of innovation, we must do more than just blindly copy the formulas so neatly captured and communicated from these leading companies. Yes, we would like some measure of their success, but we would do better to learn from the myths outlined in this book. When we are establishing our design teams, building our startups, or consolidating our consulting firms, we need to consider the ideas presented in The Myths of Innovation. The lessons I took away from the book include the following:

  • Good management has a huge impact on the success of in-house innovation.
  • Innovation is paired with collaboration.
  • The best outcomes derive from a mix of self-awareness and the ability to recognize and explore opportunities when they arise.
  • Oh, and the need for perseverance, no matter how hard the road ahead.

The universal principles and insights captured by Berkun certainly apply to design and user testing. On page 66, Berkun makes the following observation:

“[Innovators] grow so focused on creating that they forget that those innovations are good only if people can use them. While there’s a lot to be said for raising bars and pushing envelops, breakthroughs happen for societies when innovations diffuse, not when they remain forever ahead of their time.”

Information architects, therefore, have an important role to play in innovation, particularly when making use of ethnographic research techniques. At the end of the day, we don’t win awards for demonstrating how smart or creative we are if no one chooses to make use of our wonderful new innovations. The more we understand our users or customers, the better we’ll be able to create innovations that make their lives easier. Innovation doesn’t happen in isolation, nor is it the result of being struck by a falling apple (or even a falling Apple?). Innovation occurs in the real world, drawn from an understanding of needs, and delivered through a design process that makes the idea into something that will change the world. This is where IAs can contribute.

Conclusion

I started The Myths of Innovation in a positive frame of mind, generated by my interest in the topic (and the excitement of seeing my photos in print). I ended the book similarly enthusiastic. While it isn’t a long read (I started in Cambridge and finished before I touched down in Los Angeles), good books don’t need a lot of words to make their point. Scott Berkun clearly presents his arguments, demolishing many of the misconception about innovation. For those of us running businesses or developing new products, it’s a must-read.

About the Book
“The Myths of Innovation”:http://www.amazon.com/Myths-Innovation-Scott-Berkun/dp/0596527055/boxesandarrows-20
Scott Berkun
2007, O’Reilly
ISBN-10: 0596527055

Authors note: If you want to view more of my book-worthy photos, you can find them on “Flickr”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/shingen_au, or on the site from “my first photography exhibition”:http://www.artbytwo.com.au/index.html.

Posted in Book Reviews, Reviews | 5 Comments »

5 Comments

  • Terry Bleizeffer

    August 16, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    Nice review. I loved this book as well. In the review I wrote on my blog, I started with, “Have you ever been to a party and met someone with a great job and a great sense of humor and ended up spending the entire party drinking beer and swapping interesting stories? That’s what Scott Berkun’s new book, “The Myths of Innovation”, felt like to me. There are lots of books on my shelf that I know I ought to read, and many of them I struggle through and afterwards feel like it was a valuable investment of my time, however painful. This wasn’t one of them – this is one of those rare books that feels like reading for pleasure, and yet you learn something along the way. And I might add that the colophon alone is worth the price of the book (a sentence that perhaps has never been written).”

    So basically I second James’ recommendation. Time well spent.

  • Shiv Singh

    August 18, 2007 at 5:11 pm

    Thanks for the review. Generally speaking, I find books on innovation distasteful. They seem to state the obvious, encourage people to “manage” the process of innovation and take too many words to say not too much at all. By the sound of it, this book seems different. Cheers.

  • Rajesh Rangarajan

    August 19, 2007 at 4:19 am

    Thanks for the review. I really liked the part where you had mentioned that Scott didn’t summarize at the end of book. How is it possible to give a formula for innovation?

    Innovation could stem from greater understanding of the users. I always believed that it would be better for the top management to review feedback of 10 irate customers than too much of analysis of data( not say that it is not important!!!). Sometimes it is these problems that help better understanding of users which eventually help come up with innovative products/solutions

  • David C Dunkle

    September 18, 2007 at 9:27 pm

    Regarding formulas and/or methods for innovation: There has been a significant amount of innovation created using the TRIZ methods. Check out the TRIZ online Journal for more data. I mention it because it seems to directly support the concept that, “…that there can be a step-by-step guide to innovation.”

    Sure, plenty of innovation is performed in uncharted territory, but a map, like the TRIZ methods, can get you where you’re going quicker.

  • Jonathan Baker-Bates

    November 7, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    I now want to read this book – if only because it’s apparently nice and short. The biggest single criticism I have of most books like this (I’m looking at you, Malcolm Gladwell) is that they ruin the beauty of a few interesting ideas by padding them out with tremendous amounts of waffle and tumid repetition.

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