The Myths of Innovation: Book Review

How Innovation Does and Doesn't Work

This month we’re looking at a book about innovation, The Myths of Innovation. It’s a nice, quick read with lots of examples of myths that we may think of as “common knowledge” we may think of when it comes to how innovation works.

While a few of the examples are a little dated at this point, the wisdom is unchanged. So it makes for a great read. Let’s dive in.

The Myths

The book covers 10 key myths about innovation. There are probably more, but that’s a good round number for myths. Here they are:

  1. Innovation comes through epiphany

  2. We understand the history of innovation

  3. There is a method for innovation

  4. People love new ideas

  5. There is a lone inventor

  6. Good ideas are hard to find

  7. Your boss knows more about innovation than you

  8. The best ideas win

  9. Focus on solutions

  10. Innovation is always good

The book has lots of examples for each of these chapters and each of these myths, but I’ll focus on a few of my favorites.

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People don’t love new ideas

People love their new ideas. But otherwise don’t like change.

Change is hard. Most people are defenders of the status quo because that is where they are comfortable or have a vested interest.

We like new ideas only after they’ve been tested and vetted by others, and don’t threaten our own way of doing things or will improve it.

You know this if you’ve ever tried to change the way a team or organization works. It’s impossible. Even if it’s clear that the new idea or way of working is better. Which leads to:

The best ideas don’t win

You don’t have to look very far to see that the best ideas don’t win. The keyboard we all type on is far from the optimal layout, yet it is the dominant one.

In 1789, Thomas Jefferson proposed the U.S. adopt a decimalized measurement system instead of the English system (which is a mess). But the U.S. didn’t move that direction. And the rest of the world is now using the metric system while we’re still using a system that makes little sense.

The best ideas don’t often win. In fact, you often have to force your good ideas down the throats of anyone who will listen (don’t worry about people stealing them).

People in charge know less about innovation than you do

Management, by its nature, was born to reduce risk and optimize performance, not foster innovation. So management isn’t necessarily in the best position to determine what is innovative and creative. In fact, managers often kill innovation.

We often think that leaders and bosses have some sort of ability to identify innovation. They don’t. And often they are forced to be more conservative in order to reduce risk for the company.

So don’t get disheartened when your ideas aren’t received like you expect by your managers or leaders. They don’t have some special gift to know what the next great innovation will be. Sure, they may control the resources, so you may need to convince them it’s a worthy cause, but don’t lose faith because they don’t see the vision initially. It’s not necessarily because they have a superior sense. They don’t.

The Application To Product People

The best innovation comes from focusing relentlessly on the right problem. We’re aware of that as product people, and this book puts a special emphasis on that.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” - Albert Einstein

In chapter 9, the point becomes particularly salient. Many of the greatest minds of their time, including Newton, focused on the wrong problems, like trying to discover the philosopher’s stone.

That is why the quote from Einstein above is so critical. Focusing on the problem is critical. We have to have the right problem to solve. Alchemy would great, but is it the right problem?

Palm was able to become the dominant PDA by relentlessly focusing on what users wanted: small, handheld devices that did a few things very well.

Apple was able to return to dominance when Steve Jobs returned by focusing its product portfolio from an array of products down to just a few.

They did this by understanding the key problems they were solving. The CEO of Palm went out and talked with users to understand what they really wanted. It wasn’t about every feature that could be packed into a device. It was about solving key problems.

That’s something we understand as product people, but often don’t put into practice in one way or another. Either by not talking to our users enough, or by giving into the endless feature requests from sales or marketing or executives (or even our users).

This isn’t easy. It is hard to say no. It is hard to filter down.

Conclusion

Innovation is messy. Because of that, there are many myths that have been built around innovation and innovators. In the book The Myths of Innovation, Scott Berkun does a great job of addressing many of those myths. It’s a great read for product people, since we are often at the forefront of innovation, creating the next generation of products and experiences for users, breaking ground on technology that hasn’t been tried. We know the myths better than most. And fall victim to many of the myths. So it’s great to look at the examples in this book and remember that the process is messy, and there is no single right way to innovate.


Other Good Links

Divergent and Convergent Thinking: Creating Space for Creativity (article) - Divergent and convergent thinking are keys to creative problem solving. But often we constrain ourselves prematurely by what we’ve done before or what has worked in the past. We don’t explore any new or innovative solutions. Or if we do, we immediately apply constraints before they even have a chance to see the light of day.

A very brief history of every Google messaging app (article) - We’ve talked about this many times on our podcast, but Google’s product strategy can be a mess, especially their messaging app strategy. This article does an interesting job looking at its history. As an early adopter of Google Wave, (and still a fan of a product before its time), let’s all look back at the apps killed by Google and the incoherent strategy.

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