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Ten Questions with Scott Berkun, Author of "The Myths of Innovation"



Scott Berkun worked on the Internet explorer team at Microsoft from 1994-1999. He is the author of a recently released book called The Myths of Innovation. He also wrote the 2005 bestseller, The Art of Project Management. He teaches a graduate course in creative thinking at the University of Washington, runs the sacred places architecture tour at NYC’s GEL conference, and writes about innovation, design and management.

In his most recent book he explores (or, more accurately, “explodes”) the romantic notions of how innovation occurs. Join me in this Q and A session as he explains the real world of innovation.

Question: How long does it take in the real world—as opposed to the world of retroactive journalism—for an “epiphany” to occur?

Answer: An epiphany is the tip of the creative iceberg, and all epiphanies are grounded in work. If you take any magic moment of discovery from history and wander backwards in time you’ll find dozens of smaller observations, inquiries, mistakes, and comedies that occured to make the epiphany possible. All the great inventors knew this—and typically they downplayed the magic moments. But we all love exciting stories—Newton getting hit by an apple or people with chocolate and peanut butter colliding in hallways—are just more fun to think about. A movie called “watch Einstein stare at his chalkboard for 90 minutes” wouldn’t go over well with most people.

Question: Is progress towards innovation made in a straight line? For example, transistor to chip to personal computer to web to MySpace.
Answer: Most people want history to explain how we got here, not to teach them how to change the future. To serve that end, popular histories are told in heroic, logical narratives: they made a transistor, which led to the chip, which create the possibility for the PC, and on it goes forever. But of course if you asked William Shockey (transistor) or Steve Wozniak (PC) how obvious their ideas and successes were, you’ll hear very different stories about chaos, uncertainty and feeling the odds were against them.

If we believe things are uncertain for innovators in the present, we have to remember things were just as uncertain for people in the past. That’s a big goal of the book: to use amazing tales of innovation history as tools for those trying to do it now.

Question: Are innovators born or made?

Answer: Both. Take Mozart. Yes, he had an amazing capacity for musical composition, but he also was born in a country at the center of the music world, had a father who was a music teacher, and was forced to practice for hours every day before he started the equivalent of kindergarten. I researched the history of many geniuses and creators and always find a wide range of factors, some under their control and some not, that made their achievements possible.

Question: What the toughest challenge that an innovator faces?

Answer: It’s different for every innovator, but the one that crushes many is how bored the rest of the world was by their ideas. Finding support, whether emotional, financial, or intellectual, for a big new idea is very hard and depends on skills that have nothing to do with intellectual prowess or creative ability. That’s a killer for many would-be geniuses: they have to spend way more time persuading and convincing others as they do inventing, and they don’t have the skills or emotional endurance for it.

Question: Where do inventors and innovators get their ideas?

Answer: I teach a creative thinking course at the University of Washington, and the foundation is that ideas are combinations of other ideas. People who earn the label “creative” are really just people who come up with more combinations of ideas, find interesting ones faster, and are willing to try them out. The problem is most schools and organizations train us out of the habits.

Question: Why do innovators face such rejection and negativity?

Answer: It’s human nature—we protect ourselves from change. We like to think we’re progressive, but every wave of innovation has been much slower than we’re told. The telegraph, the telephone, the PC, and the internet all took decades to develop from ideas into things ordinary people used. As a species we’re threatened by change and it takes a long time to convince people to change their behavior, or part with their money.

Question: How do you know if you have a seemingly stupid idea according to the “experts” that will succeed or a stupid idea that is truly stupid?

Answer: Don’t shoot me, but the answer is we can’t know. Not for certain. That’s where all the fun and misery comes in. Many stupid ideas have been successful and many great ideas have died on the vine and that’s because success hinges on factors outside of our control.

The best bet is to be an experimenter, a tinkerer—to learn to try out ideas cheaply and quickly and to get out there with people instead of fantasizing in ivory towers. Experience with real people trumps expert analysis much of the time. Innovation is a practice—a set of habits—and it involves making lots of mistakes and being willing to learn from them.

Question: If you were a venture capitalist, what would your investment thesis be?

Answer: Two parts: neither is original, but they borne out by history. One is portfolio. Invest knowing most ventures, even good ones, fail, and distribute risk on some spectrum (e.g. 1/3 very high risk, 1/3 high risk, 1/3 moderate risk). Sometimes seemingly small, low risk/reward innovations have big impacts and it’s a mistake to only make big bets.

The other idea is people: I’d invest in people more than ideas or business plans—though those are important of course. A great entrepreneur who won’t give up and will keep growing and learning is gold. It’s a tiny percentage of entrepreneurs who have any real success the first few times out—3M, Ford, Flickr were all second or third efforts. I’d also give millions of dollars to authors of recent books on innovation with the word Myth in the title. The future is really in their hands.

Question: What are the primary determinants of the speed of adoption of innovation?

Answer: The classic research on the topic is Diffusion of Innovation by Rogers, which defines factors that hold up well today. The surprise to us is that they’re all sociological: based on people’s perception of value and their fear of risks—which often has little to do with our view of how amazing a particular technology is. Smarter innovators know this and pay attention from day one to who they are designing for and how to design the website or product in a way that supports their feelings and beliefs.

Question: What’s more important: problem definition or problem solving?

Answer: Problem definition is definitely under-rated, but they’re both important. New ideas often come from asking new questions and being a creative question asker. We fixate on solutions and popular literature focuses on creative people as being solvers, but often the creativity is in reformulating a problem so that it’s easier to solve. Einstein and Edison were notorious problem definers: they defined the problem differently than everyone else and that’s what led to their success.

Question: Why don’t the best ideas win?

Answer: One reason is because the best idea doesn’t exist. Depending on your point of view, there’s a different best idea or best choice for a particular problem. I’m certain that they guys who made telegraphs didn’t think the telephone was all that good an idea, but it ended their livelihood. So many stories of progress gone wrong are about arrogance of perception: what one person thinks is the right path—often the path most profitable to them— isn’t what another, more influential group of people thought.

Question: Is innovation more likely to come from young people or old people? Or is age simply not a factor?

Answer: Innovation is difficult, risky work, and the older you are, the greater the odds you’ll realize this is the case. That explanation works best. Beethoven didn’t write his nineth symphony until late in his life, so we know many creatives stay creative no matter how old they are. But their willingness to endure all the stresses and challenges of bringing an idea to the world diminishes. They understand the costs better from the life experience. The young don’t know what their is to fear, have stronger urges to prove themselves, and have fewer commitments—for example, children and mortgages. These factors that make it easier to try crazy things.


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