The Myths of Innovation


In the knowledge economy, Innovation represents the Holy Grail : the undisputed source of wealth, pride and prestige. It is one of the most respected and worshiped word in corporate vocabulary. Yet you can hardly find organisations that share a same definition, let alone have a clear plan to manage it. The reason is : we are misguided by common misconception that run rampant in business and popular culture (Berkun).

With The Myths of innovation, his second book, Scott Berkun aims to clarify the topic : he is merciless with wishful thinking using his ruthless wit and encyclopaedic culture on the subject.

This paperback re-edition is a revised version of the original 2007 edition including four new (and amazing) chapters. As usual with Scott, this is a fantastic read, filled with conviction, great ideas, provocative thoughts, common sense and unexpected bursts of humour. The telling stories, the usability of the advises, the hindsight and wisdom of conclusions and the Occam Razor approach of Scott brings bucket loads of value to the reader.

You want to know how to make innovation happen ? And, more importantly, what prevents it from happening because of cultural beliefs and urban legends ? Read on …

Unlocking life mystery

Julian Casabianca‘s 8th Phrase for the Young is Unlocking life mysteries is the responsibility of dissatisfied people. Scott must be a hell of a dissatisfied guy.

Don’t get me wrong : you won’t find any bitterness, jealousy or envy in his writing. The dissatisfaction acts as a fuel, a positive energy leading his writings towards the Truth. The allegoric one. The one that innervates all his best sellers and blog posts. This obsession with truth is the mark of great writers as Nabokov said about the work of Tolstoi.

The tool set for this unlocking operation is books. This is one of the reasons why Scott is such a great writer : he is a great reader in the first place. The bibliography is quite impressive and every statement, claim, position, idea in the book is thoroughly documented, balanced and has patently required substantial research work. This confers a great authority to his essays.

Scratching his own itches

Another reason of the great energy and conviction of Scott writings is that he scratches his own itches : he focusses on these mysteries that immediately surround him.

Scott used to be Project Manager at Microsoft on the Internet Explorer projet (from versions 1 to 5) : Management and Innovation are logically the main subjects of his first two essays. Making Things Happen (initially published under the name The Art Of Project Management – Scott being a doer he puts a verb in the title the second time around) aimed to frame management tasks and responsibilities in a simple framework. He tackles innovation in this book.

Being now a writer and speaker he wrote about public speaking in his third best-seller : Confessions of a Public Speaker which #hypertextual reviewed a year ago (FR).

Relentlessness

Whenever Scott addresses an issue he really does so thoroughly. Again, the bibliography and the volume of ideas discussed here is quite impressive : history, creativity, business innovation, entrepreneurship, myths and mythologies all subjects are fed with serious research. This is a proof that Scott walks the talk and invests a considerable amount of effort to expose his ideas to the world.

In Making Things Happen he points out relentlessness as one of the principle quality of managers. In Myths Of Innovations, he identifies perseverance as one of the main difference between innovation that succeed and the one that fails.

Just as 37Signals wrote, there is no shortcuts and overnight success take years. Not surprisingly, Epiphany happens to be the first myth cut down to pieces by our MythBuster.

This effort does not only encompass the research but also the actual writing : clear, intelligent and yet simple and funny. As ususal , humour comes in bursts of unexpected flashes : the rabid zombie rottweiler, the smelly Rupert table of contents or patients refusing from being cured from cancer because the proposed cure is not innovative are hilarious. This contributes to make the read a real treat.

Myth debunking

Think of this book as a sword –

… the most amazing sword ever. Now, with it in hand attack every creative legend you’ve ever heard (…) These popular tales of creativity are deceptive at best, wild lies at worst. They are shaped to placate the masses not to inform or help people actually interested in doing creative work. (…) The fun begins now : free yourself. Fell like you did when you were young, without any preconceptions over what is or is not creative.

Reading Berkun makes the best part of the reader reappear. Makes her feel literate, clever and empowered.

Berkun does not succeed in doing so being a demagogue or selling silver bullet. He achieves this while shedding some light to great undisclosed stories. He allows us to visit the back office or these innovations just like he would make us visit the cuisine of great chiefs whose awesome dishes are intimidating at first. And then he puts all of them into perspective to shape a convincing theory.

Scott shows a lot of respect to the readers by focussing on bringing them the truth. And the truth is : innovation requires hard work. But at least the mysteries and petrifying fairy tales have vanished. Just like the great doers of his generation (37Signals, Derek Sivers, …) he empowers people by providing excellent hacks and by bringing the good news : it is just up to them.

Using the truth as a machete in the jungle of urban legends, Berkun clears the space around the subject he addresses and makes the whole scenery wide open and actionable. This is invaluable.

Management and innovation

According to Scott, there are 2 main prerequisites for innovation to happen : trust and the will to take some risks.

The Myths of Innovation argues that a vast majority of teams are dysfunctional : there is no trust in these teams. As a result, ideas can’t float freely between people. Since innovation is more often than not an association of ideas, people not able to voice freely their ideas can not exchange them.

The second point is the fact that most managers are conservative and risk adverse. Therefore they are not willing to cover risky ideas which is necessary to foster innovation. In cultures where failures is stigmatized (such as european one as Steve Jobs reported to french TV about 30 years ago) this is a real issue.

Epilogue

There are four supplementary chapters compared to the initial edition.

The first one (Epilogue, beyond Hype and History) is the most impressive and enlightening. A small part of it is a transcript of Scott speech at The Economist conference.

The other three are heavily revised posts he published on his blog : Creative Thinking Hacks, How To Stay Motivated and How To Pitch an idea. The latter is a fantastic set of advises on how to present your world changing idea to people.

As an appetizer, his conference at Carnegie Mellon back in 2007.

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