“No One Knows What’s Possible” – Myths of Innovation


What you do not see is where it all happens.

The shiny demo of your favorite awesome product is perhaps the very last step of a journey that must have begun way earlier. I had grown to appreciate this fact only after I had gone through creating something original. Reading Scott Berkun’s Myths of Innovation reinforced my experiences and clarified my understanding of how to innovate and how to sustain teams that innovate. My semi-brief review follows.

Myth of Epiphany

Scott starts with an anecdote. While observing visitors on a tour of Google’s offices, he hears one of them ask, “Where is the search engine? Are we going to see it?” and another one question, “I see them talking and typing, but when do they come up with their ideas?”.

With that preamble, he dismantles popular perceptions of Innovation. The notion of ideas emerging and materializing fully formed in bright minds is very common. Those who have no access to inner workings of minds, invariably see the final result as having issued out perfectly. But every myth of perfect instant creation defies common sense. By way of explaining this belief in myths, Scott says,

Myths are often more satisfying to us than the truth, which explains their longevity and resistance to facts: we want to believe that they’re true..myths always serve promotion more than education.

The notion of epiphany is dismissed not only because it defies common sense, but it ignores the foundation of ideas upon which every new idea is built.

Any seemingly grand idea can be divided into an infinite series of smaller, previously known ideas…there is no singular magic moment; instead, there are many smaller insights accumulated over time.

Big thoughts are fun to romanticize, but it’s many small insights coming together that bring big ideas into the world.

I could not help but relate it to popular stories about the Buddha. They say He sat under the Bodhi tree one day, vowing to himself not to get up until he found the secret of release from suffering and untangling the knot of individual existence. Again that idea of a magical realization.

What is ignored is the grueling work the Buddha put in, the teachers he learnt from, the social conditions that supported(or opposed!) his enquiry, the spiritual knowledge that existed..and many other factors that all went into the cauldron of his experience to finally issue out as Nirvana.

The notion of waiting for epiphany is again debunked with a beautiful quote of Ted Hoff, inventor of the first microprocessor.

If you’re always waiting for that wonderful breakthrough, it’s probably never going to happen. Instead, what you have to do is keep working on things. If you find something that looks good, follow through with it.

Evolution of Ideas

Scott moves then to historical context of new ideas. How ideas evolve, how having good ideas don’t automatically make things better and how its impossible to predict if an idea is good without seeing its long term utility. I especially loved this point.

The wonders of Greece and Rome didn’t prevent our clumsy civilization-wide slide into the Dark Ages.

Merely having good ideas of democracy don’t matter, if the populace is governed by lesser ideas as in the case of Europe’s middle ages. But as history shows, good ideas do win out over time, the ancient genius of Greece won, even if a victory limited to politics. Which leads to the next insight.

Dominant designs dominate history

The fact that there are “dominant designs” implicitly states that there are designs that are not dominant. The ones who lost out in an evolutionary “survival of the fittest” struggle. History only captures the idea strain that survived, the others forgotten. This is illustrated with a good diagram.


Method of Innovation

The bad news here? There is no methodology. For how can innovation, a journey the the unknown, have a map! Now the book moves to cost of innovation and its beginnings.

Innovating comes at a price: it might be money, time, sanity, friends, or marriages, but there will definitely be one.

Everyone wants to know where the magic happened, and since they can’t imagine the magic sprinkled across years of work, they assume it’s a secret—a tangible, sin- gular element hiding behind the start. Like our endless quest to explain the origins of things, we’re prone to seeking magic in beginnings.

Curiosity does not make innovation happen. And without a beginning we merely play at “using others’ proven magic” and do not understand how easy it is to fail.

Spread of Innovation

Some counter-intuitive statements here. Scott looks to Everett M Rogers, author of Diffusion of Innovations and states,

..anthropological approach to innovation, suggesting that new ideas spread at speeds determined by psychology and sociology, not the abstract merits of those new ideas.

I thought this was brilliant insight and helped me appreciate how important marketing is to help drive adoption for a new idea.

Your Boss Knows More

The seventh chapter is worth the price of admission. There is specific insight on how innovation may be enabled. And it starts with a declaration,

..no one knows what’s possible

Scott frames that statement in the context of Industrial era style managers. He who wants certainty cannot expect to stumble upon an uncertain innovation. But managers can provide key support by providing cover fire, supporting a culture that encourages goal-based exploration and the most important by persuading stakeholders, potential team members and customers. I loved the following quotes. First on use of humor, Scott quotes a former Dean of Yale Medical School.

One way to tell when something important is going on is by laughter. It seems to me that whenever I have been around a laboratory at a time when something very interesting has hap- pened, it has at first seemed to be quite funny. There’s laughter connected with the surprise—it does look funny. And whenever you hear laughter…you can tell that things are going well and that something probably worth looking at has begun to happen in the lab.

That really got me smiling because my luck for working with people with a warped sense of humor continues at our startup. I have no scientific evidence for this but warped humor indicates the quality of mind behind it. Ability to see different perspectives, to see absurdity where it is not apparent, to see impossibility and yet grapple with it though it is so foolish…so many things about pushing boundaries of possibility are catalyzed by humor.

Innovators Do

Subsequent chapters cover how good ideas win, identifying good problems. The epilogue has a brilliant paragraph that is even self-critical of books about innovation :). It summarizes a specific view on innovations and innovators.

When considering the creators of the great works of the past, it’s surprising how few of them studied innovation or creative thinking. From van Gogh to Edison, Steve Jobs to Dave Eggers, almost none of them studied any of these topics in any conventional way. They didn’t read innovation books, and they didn’t take innovation classes. They miraculously overcame the frightening lack of TED videos and Malcolm Gladwell essays in their day, and found inspiration on their own. Many of them were dropouts or wanderers in the spaces between disciplines and professions. However, what they did do was pick specific problems they were passionate about, and got to work. They focused on those problems, often with little guarantee of reward. My point is that they didn’t seem to need much understanding of innovation as an abstract concept, which many people today believe is the place to start. But a strong case can be made that the opposite is true. Many of the great figures didn’t care to study; they preferred to do. They quickly got to work trying to solve important problems—that in some cases they thought they could profit from—and learned along the way. Perhaps the greatest myth of all is that you need to be an expert in innovation in order to change the world.

I would definitely recommend Scott’s book Myths of Innovation. There is a clarity in Scott’s writing, a systematic laying out of context and leading the reader through mind and mechanics that enable & support innovation. And you dear reader can supply that dose of madness and attempt the impossible!

Disclosure: Review done as part of O’Reilly Blogger Review Program and I got a review copy of this book.

Elevating the Mundane by Design


Walking meditation is one of the techniques to center one’s attention and consciously deepen awareness of the self. The idea is to walk with complete awareness of all the bodily sensations that are enjoined during the act of walking. Its quite popular with those who owe allegiance to the dharma of the Buddha.

Amongst practitioners of this technique, the location does not typically matter. As long as there are no disturbances during the initial stages.

With that as context I could not help but smile at the level of ingenuity in designing as space for performing this simple act. I came across this via FactCoDesign blog. Have quoted a portion the post below.

For instance, from 4 a.m. to noon, an east wall offers shade during morning chants and the daily meal. From noon until 8 p.m., a roof protects the monk from harsh midday sun. And during the final period, from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., evening chants take place in an exposed area of the circle with a hanging mosquito net to sleep under.

Even the mundane can be elevated by design. All it needs is for us to pay attention to the forces that envelope and shape the mundane.

My Greatest Engineering Challenge

Putting man on the moon, sending a probe to the remote edges of our solar system, instrumenting the planet, reversing global warming, finding a cure for cancer and AIDS and every other scientific endeavor that engages our collective attentions are worthy problems as candidates for the title of Greatest Engineering Challenge Ever.

But all these pale into insignificance before the one true problem, at least according to me. That is the problem of purpose, that has confounded, baffled and defeated all but a handful of us since the first animal pondered cause and effect.

Problem of purpose forks into the following trinity of questions – Who am I, what am I here for and what do I become. Questions that have been mistakenly considered as axioms and resisted honest investigation.

As someone attempting to comprehend and practice the methods prescribed by Buddha, I have come to realize this emphatically – Introspection is a path littered with inner conflict. The notions and ideas that make up the sense of self are all placed in doubt. Self-identity is no longer a given. In the place of a homogeneous entity there is a mass of influences and impulses. It is a time of great confusion.

Contrary to general perceptions this decomposition of the sense of self and the analysis of its constituent parts seems to share an intimate affinity with the scientific method that is characteristic of modern sciences. And the elegance of this endeavor lies in the fact that the experiment and the experimenter are one.

We work on our own selves and help re-make ourselves anew. The methods and techniques of our experiments have an exactitude that is more unforgiving than a programming language compiler that barks a warning at the least deviation from the required syntax.

Of all that life churns out in its fevered imaginations, and of all the trials and tribulations I have had the opportunity to confront, this is my greatest engineering challenge ever.

What Life Asks of Us

What life asks of us, is the rhetorical title of the post by David Brooks on NYTimes.

It discusses the guiding principles of an individual’s life and highlights an approach of institutions governing the actions of man. This is in contrast to an individual thrusting his ego, desire and ambition onto the field of action.

David recounts ideas from “On Thinking Institutionally” by political scientist Hugh Heclo. And I quote-

In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft.

Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are.

New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. “In taking delivery,” Heclo writes, “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”

Romantic as it may sound, I cannot but flinch at the notion of the individual being subservient to the needs and goals of any institution. Of course there are valid scenarios quoted as examples and am sure many more can be brought out if you restrict sampling to the cream of humanity.

My disagreement arises out of the experience of living through the various Indian institutional systems including that of religion, caste and creed to mention but a few. I use the Indian case as a representative sample of what happens elsewhere.

Because when you remove the cultural, and regional, specifics human systems tend to resemble each other a lot.

Now to quote a few of the ills – i) Chaturvarna, the Four fold caste system ii) The impulse to Sanyassa. And before you think these are religious/spiritual aspects not relevant in other cultures, let me quote some secular ills – iii) Institutions of Governance and iv) Educational Institutions

Chaturvana, four-fold caste system

Manu, the mythical founding father of the human race according to Hindu mythology, is said to have classified humans into four classes of beings. The Brahmin, man of knowledge. Kshatriya, the fighter and defender. Vaishya, the trader. And finally Shudra, the worker.

This classification has a dubious record in India. Just about every caste based ill can be traced to it. To anyone with an ounce of subtlety and insight into the symbolic nature of Indian mythology this is immediately apparent as a psychological profiling scheme. Profile so as to have a body of rules that would help govern the individuals actions in this life.

Guess you would have caught the drift of my thought here. A system that had its rightful place by the founder, whoever it was in reality, gets muddled and misused.

The social institution of caste by heredity is a failure.

Today the son of a Brahmin has little in common with the aims of his caste. Perhaps he is an investment banker doing the job a Vaishya is supposed to do. Or even a common foot-soldier in a large corporation, doing the work of a Shudra.

No sane society can let this institution and its methods survive, at least not in the form it is now.

Institution of Sanyasa

Adi Shankara, a founder of Advaita, had a difficult task. The nation was overrun by the nihilism of the Buddha. Nihilism in itself was not the issue, but the fact that Buddha completely denied the ritualistic systems of the Veda was unacceptable. What would remain of Hinduism, the Sanatana Dharma, once you removed the foundation of the Veda! With that as context came the overwhelming Advaita philosophy. And with it the standard of Sanyassa came to be the one mark to distinguish those who were serious about the pursuit of spiritual goals. A race that had once reveled in art and work and beauty was stripped to the bare essentials of a single pointed movement to the Non-dualistic goal of Advaita.

Sanyasa exists today in the various monasteries of India and the countless who linger by temples donning the ochre colored robe.

Nothing wrong in it as such.

But in creating a class whose sole aim was to achieve salvation meant that in a single stroke a deep gulf was established between who could attain to the high states of the soul and who could not. Perceptions were forever skewed.

The householder and common worker could still enter these realms but only as an exception and a special case. Common life was destined to be common. The comprehensive and all-inclusive system of Sanatana Dharma had a rift that remains uncrossed after many hundred years.

Institutions of Governance

The remnants of a colonial past still shackles the nation. The ills of this system are common knowledge. And I shall refrain from dipping into this muck.

Educational Institutions

The purpose of education is to equip an individual with the tools and techniques needed to lead a productive life. But now these are schools of rote learning with little independent thinking encouraged and with absolutely no emphasis on fostering a values driven individual culture.

There is a moral crisis, as the various financial industry scams and widespread corruption will attest. And it is in no small measure due to educational institutions being reduced to being offices that confer paper recognition.

The title stands in lieu of the individual’s knowledge.

And when that happens the goal of men turns out to be to get the title through hook or crook and not the acquisition of knowledge. Of course exceptions remain but by and large educational degrees and certificates have lost their efficacy.

To summarize..

…individuals should not be subservient to any institution. The way of having an objective set of standards for an individual to govern his living by has been tried before and it is definitely not the entire solution.

An institution can provide guidelines, or suggestions, and leave it to the individual to mould his worldview, assuming that a strong foundation of values is already in place, and get out of the damned way.