May 4th, 2014

planet

The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun

This book was on personalmba.com, a website I've been consulting lately to make up for my lack of an MBA.

I loved the book, and have recommended it to people all over the place lately... especially to a mother of a gifted child, and several coworkers.

It's basically about how we oversimplify history (us, really? I know!) and have a lot of fantasies when it comes to inventions.

For example, we'll spread these stories about how smart people just randomly come up with genius ideas that change the world. An apple hit Newton on the head and he discovered gravity. That's not the case. Many inventors worked for decades to become experts in their field, and their hard work paid off... Berkun compares their stories to jigsaw puzzles that take a long time to put together. You don't put in that last piece and say "that was instant!"

Or we'll try to duplicate an inventor's methods... figure out what he ate or what his parents did or where he was at in the world, thinking that we can recreate the genius. We can't.

We think people work alone to change the world. They rarely do. In fact there are frequently inventor "soulmates" who play to the strengths and weaknesses of the famous inventors we know, but who history left out because we just can't be complicating the story too much. Many innovations were brought about by teams.

He talked some shit on The Fountainhead. I really liked that part. You all know The Fountainhead is my least favorite book ever... it acts like this mediocre populous is just in the way of a lone genius who clearly sees the best course of action, always. This is not true of any human. All the great minds of make mistakes. Isaac Newton, clearly a genius, was pretty sure he could turn lead into gold and dedicated way too much time to that problem. Our heroes are really not as heroic as we'd like them to be... everyone is building on previous innovations, and many great inventors need to be talked back down into the reality of what society can afford to adapt.

But the most painful myth to me is that good ideas are just obvious, when someone thinks them up. As if Edison invented the light bulb and everyone just shouted "oh I've gotta get electricity for this!" - so not true. We Americans like to believe in our dream, that if you're good, wonderful things just happen to you. I like to believe that in my field of engineering there are no politics, prejudices, or authority required to change my company. I have found this to be horribly false, which is tragic because it's really why I went into engineering in the first place. I wanted people to believe in my ideas even if they didn't like me.

There are all kinds of factors that play into whether an idea takes off and gets to change the world... can we adopt it, will it make money. He's got a whole chapter about impractical solutions like HTML, the QWERTY keyboard, and the standard system of measurement, that seem to just be here to stay despite not really being the best.

I'm a manager now, and the book had a heartbreaking bit about managers: they are around to bring order to the chaos. Keep people focused, predictable, and in line. These things are inherently against innovation!

Don't get me wrong, the book isn't all bad. It's funny, for one thing. And it does have inspiring stories about inventors doing the right things, persisting in the right ways (they get told NO a LOT). It has recommendations... rather than the "engage your right brain" ping pong tables embraced by trendy tech firms, we need to relax about workspaces and just tell everyone to work hard, and take breaks, because good ideas come to people who soak in knowledge and THEN relax for a minute to look at other sides of the problem. Prototype the hell out of your ideas, really picture how people will use them.

But really I think the book's message is to not give up. Do not think that if your genius idea hasn't struck when you're 25, you're over. You have so much more to soak in, so many more problems to see and people to work with. Innovation is a very gradual, iterative process... it's complicated. We need to spread the word a bit on that.