Review of Myths of Innovation

I read The Myths of Innovation a while ago and am now just getting around to reviewing it. Originally, I wanted to review it for Boxes and Arrows, but James Robertson beat me to it. See his review on Boxes and Arrows. (Ironically, but not coincidently, I edited that review for B&A).


The Myths of Innovation, by Scott Berkun (O’Reilly, 2007) ISBN: 0596527055, $24.99 ($16.49 on, 162 pages.

Innovation is the new black. It’s on the lips on many companies these days, regardless of industry or sector. Just look at the slogans, mottos, and company values out there. You’d think everyone is innovating. Many self-proclaimed innovators, however, are actually higly risk-averse organizations fiercely protecting the status quo, whether they know it or not.

Sure, these companies are well-managed and successful. But that doesn’t mean they are innovators. In fact, Clayton Christensen, professor at Harvard, might say that many established companies are in what calls an “innovator’s dilemma”: The same management techniques that have made them industry leaders also hinder them from developing disruptive technologies that ultimately steal away their markets. See his best-selling book, The Innovator’s Delimma.

In The Myths of Innovation, author Scott Berkun also points out that many traditional companies aren’t motivated to change:

“It’s both a psychological and economical phenomenon: as people and companies age, they have more to lose. They’re not willing to spend years chasing dreams or to endanger what they’ve worked so hard to build. Attitudes focus on security, risk aversion, and optimization of the status quo eventually become dominant positions, and even become organizational policy at companies that were once young, nimble, and innovative. Even its success enabled it to grow into mainstream business, diminishing their interest and capacity for new ideas.” (p. 62).

He also writes: “Few managers recognize that their training and experience, designed to protect what exists, work against the forces needed for innovation.” (p. 96).

But by definition, innovation means being open to new ideas: something has to change for an innovation to take place. Innovation also requires taking some kind of risk. Of course, risk isn’t a bad thing—it brings opportunity as well. The problem is that not everyone likes new ideas or risk, and that’s a problem, which the Berkun discusses in Chapter 4.

More importantly, there is a prevailing oversimplified view of innovation fueled by myths. Myths, in general, provide compact, uncomplicated ways of understanding the past. And the field of innovation it is no different. “We want innovation explained in neat packages.” (p. 71). People like romantic stories about the secret magical moment that spawned a new innovation, for instance. As a result, misconceptions about innovation arise.

Berkun makes it very clear throughout the book that innovation doesn’t happen this way. Instead, there many processes involved, and the road to innovation is rarely a straight line. This view of innovation is refreshing, and it’s a true strength of the book. Berkun clearly takes a holistic view on innovation, describing it ecology rather than a single method or process.

Innovation is like a complex puzzle, he says, filled with trial and error. And like a doing a jigsaw puzzle, rarely are you able to pick up a piece and have it fit on the first try. A good example of this (one not mentioned in the book) is the development of the Dyson vacuum cleaner. The inventor, Sir James Dyson, is reported to have gone through 5126 prototypes before getting to the final product on the market today. (See: “Failure Doesn’t Suck”). This also recalls a saying by Thomas Alva Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

So generally you don’t have a single, lone innovativor who then has a moment of epiphany. The idea of the apple falling on Newton’s head–an apocryphal tale at best–is nice for grade school classes, but has little to do with the years of hard work and trial and error he went through, not to mention the hundreds of influences from the outside. Berkun illustrates the complicated road to successful innovation with many compelling examples throughout the book.

The problem is that many organizations aren’t set up for failure and creative exploration. There are often very clear objectives with a high price tag associated with them, as well as many jobs riding on any business initiative. Most work environments simply don’t foster creativity and innovative thinking. This is a loss of potential innovation. “The truth is that we all have innate skills for solving problems and finding ideas: we’ve just lost our way.” (p. 83).

Another myth: we believe that good ideas will look their part in a very obvious way, and we expect to recognize an innovation on sight. The first computer mouse, as Berkun points out, was an ugly block of wood with a wheel and cord. No one saw it and thought, “Wow. This is going to help revolutionize the accessibility of computers to non-computer specialists.” Or consider this: how many people said after the Wright brothers’ first short, wobbly flight, “This invention is clearly the beginning of a multi-billion dollar industry that will change the world”? There were no crowds in Kitty Hawk that day to cheer on the innovation. In fact, it took six years before they even sold the first airplane.

A recent article in Business Week entitled “The Long Nose of Innovation” by Bill Buxton reinforces this notion. I blogged this previously. He writes: “An idea may well start with an invention, but the bulk of the work and creativity is in that idea’s augmentation and refinement.” Ideas sometimes need lots of time to get traction on their way to becoming true innovations.

The problem is that people judge superficial aspects of ideas and not their potential. And don’t expect management to be able to recognize an innovation when they see it. As Berkun reminds us, they very often can’t; managers don’t necessarily know any more about innovation than you do. This recalls a statement by Alan Kay, a well-known researcher at Xerox PARC, who once said: “It takes almost as much creativity to understand a good idea as to have it in the first place.”

Though The Myths of Innovation isn’t really a how-to book, Berkun does offer some practical advice at a few points. For instance, he offers five key areas for managers to focus on when managing innovation:

  1. Give ideas life. Avoid idea killers, like “we tried that” and “it’ll never work. Fund and support initiatives that generate ideas
  2. Create an innovative environment. “The Nerf toys, open architecture and fun vibe at Google’s headquarters aren’t gimmicks; the environment is supportive of ideas and collaboration, which helps innovations move through the organization.” (p. 103).
  3. Protect innovators and innovations from management and administration. Shield ideas and the people behind them from idea killers.
  4. Execute on your ideas. Ideas must be realized to become innovations. Develop prototypes and proof of concepts.
  5. Persuade others that you have the right idea. The most successful innovators spend as much time selling their ideas as they do building their inventions.

But even if managed well, the best ideas don’t always win, the topic of Chapter 8. Building a better mousetrap doesn’t mean you’ve succeeded. First, you need to convince and persuade others to encourage your idea. Innovators must be persistent evangelizers. Then, even if you get internal funding or support, you have to be concerned about whether users will adopt your innovation. Understanding your target population helps increase the predictability with which a group will adopt your innovations.

The subject of adopting an innovation is precisely why user researchers and designers should be highly interested in this book. We designers are by nature very concerned with how people will experience the new thing we are making. By definition, this underlies design work in general.

To illustrate this point, elsewhere Berkun has said:

Successful innovators spend as much time understanding the people they are designing for, their beliefs, feelings, values, and needs, as they do the technologies they’re using to build innovations, and the book offers the fundamentals on how to do this. So, the superiority of your mousetrap is sure nice in an ivory-tower setting, but if people—customers—can’t see why it’s superior, then the superiority is just your opinion. And sadly, I don’t know anyone who has made millions solely on the superiority of their own opinion.”

A key aspect of innovation, then, is the adoption or non-adoption of the innovation. Of course, Everett Rogers outlined five key factors for understanding adoption of innovations in his oft-cited book The Diffusions of Innovation decades ago. Berkun summarizes these concepts briefly, which are:

  • Relative advantage: How do users perceive the value of the new thing compared to the old?
  • Compatibility: How well does the innovation fit in with the existing values, past experiences and current needs of potential adopters?
  • Complexity: How easy or hard is it to learn to use the new thing?
  • Trialability: Can it be tested?
  • Observability: What does it look like?

Have a look at this brief essay I wrote on the five factors of adopting an innovation back in 2001.

Finally, Chapter 9–“Problems and solutions”–is one of the more intriguing parts of the book. (At least it was for me). Innovation isn’t only about solutions, but also about finding the right problems to solve and framing them in the right way. “Discovering problems actually requires just as much creativity as discovering solutions” (p. 128). This reminded me of a quote from Don Norman I recently came across in an interview with Peter Merholz. Norman advises designers:

Do not solve the problem that’s asked of you. It’s almost always the wrong problem. Almost always when somebody comes to you with a problem, they’re really telling you the symptoms and the first and the most difficult part of design is to figure out what is really needed to get to the root of the issue and solve the correct problem.

The example from The Myths of Innovation I particularly like comes from Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, the makers of Quicken. He apparently realized that the greatest competitor wasn’t other software programs, but the pencil. Reframing the problem in this way (i.e., to compete with the pencil) allowed them to develop one of the most widely-used personal finance software packages out there.

So, what does it mean to be innovative, then? Maybe nothing. Maybe companies should just focus on creating great customer experiences and, if innovation happens—even disruptive innovation—then let it. Berkun himself encourages us to stop using the word in a blog post (see: Stop saying innovation—here’s why). “It doesn’t mean anything anymore,” he writes.

Overall, in The Myths of Innovation, Scott Berkun dissects and debunks the perceived simplicity of innovation and reveals its true complexity. This short book paints a broad picture of innovation from a historical perspective and includes many great examples—real eye-openers.

It is a well-written book with a sprinkling of good humor to kept things interesting. His style is accessible and conversational to just about any target group. The small, bite-sized chapters let’s you move quickly through the concepts without getting sidetracked.

With 150 pages of text at a price of about 16 bucks, you have no excuse for not buying and reading this book. It’s well worth it.


Quotes from the Book:

“Technology prowess matters much less than we think in the diffusion of innovation.” (p. 65)

“[Innovators] grow so focused on creating things that they forget that those innovations are good only if people can use them.” (p. 66)

“All innovations today are bound to innovation of the past.”

“Einstein said ‘imagination is more important than knowledge’ but you’d be hard-pressed to find schools or corporations that invest in people with those priorities.” (p. 83)

“The dirty little secret—the fact often denied—is that unlike the mythical epiphany, real creation is sloppy.” (p. 86)

“Talent is only as good as the environment it’s in.” (p. 96)

“It’s easy to assume that the manager has a better perspective on the viability of an idea, perhaps from her superior experience and knowledge of the industry. But these are exactly the factors that also work against innovation: high experience and confidence make people the greatest resistors to new ideas as they have the most to lose.” (p. 98)

“Good managers of innovation recognize that they are in primary control over the environment, and it’s up to them to create a place for talented people to do their best work.” (p. 103)

“The idealism of goodness and the notion that goodness wins is tempered by the limits and irrationalities of people’s willingness to try new things, the culture of the era, and the events of the time.” (p. 124)

“No one asked Galileo to explain the solar system, Engelbart to invent the mouse, or Bell to create the telephone. They saw unidentified problems in the world and dedicated themselves to defining and solving them.” (p. 127)

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL


  1. James – good post. The bottom line is that innovations take a lot of work, even after the initial notion that something about the status quo needs to change. The advice Berkun gives on what managers can do merely re-emphasizes that point and then there are the issues of to adopt vs non-adopt that you point out. We we are trying to do is transfer those initial (and also developed) ideas from idea people to entrepreneurs to accelerate the development and also adoption process!

    —————- – Float, Vote and Search for Ideas

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