“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.

Five Reasons Why Enterprises Stumble at Innovation


In an earlier post we covered social factors that lead to acceptance of failure in startups, reading it would help get some context. Writing that post gave me another perspective for why enterprises fail at innovation, I have written a few posts around this topic. For example in an old post replace collaboration with innovation and you will find views there still hold.

Conclusion from earlier failure in startups posts was that stance of accepting failure as possibility is key for new ideas and businesses be created. Which dovetails, in my view, about why large enterprises so often stumble at innovation, or don’t innovate at the level they should, especially considering the resources they have. Here are my five reasons.

Decide and Move Forward

The positive aspect of being risk averse is being thorough in planning and execution. The negative aspect is when all and sundry want to make sure fingers will not point at them when things go wrong. One does not need to play russian roulette with new ideas but can definitely exercise judgement in the interests of moving forward.

Blind Adherence to Processes

Processes that make sure repeatability actively prevent people from thinking about the case on hand. The letter of the processes takes front-seat, the spirit goes quietly slinking away. What I am responsible for becomes more important than doing what is right for the organization.

Assumptions of Invariant Context

Enterprises plan and organize for continuity of service. One key assumption in planning is that external factors, the context in which they work, do not change. Or even if they account for contextual factors it is often viewed via old lenses and biases. This was an acceptable assumption is the industrial era. For the information age, there could be no assumption more fatal to organizations. A globalized economy does not pause to catch a nap or a breather. Everywhere people are thinking, building and moving forward faster.

Not all Gatekeepers are Visionaries

Anyone who has pushed a new initiative in an organization must know the mind-numbing conversations where every passer-by is to approve the idea. They have a fancy term for this, “building consensus”, which is a sound process in principle but seldom works as it should. The assumption that all you talk to are skilled enough to judge an idea and understand nuances is not always true. Go to any organization who don’t innovate as much as they should and you will find well-intentioned, risk averse and turf hugging people holding the organization back.

Innovation is pursuit of an unknown perfection

Of course there will and must be solid research into the idea, business models built, costs and revenue estimated & tracked etc. But at heart innovation is a venturing into the unknown. Every prototype, every conversation, every contact with a potential customer peels the layer off the next revolutionary product. Having to run an idea past a committee or make it jump through bureaucratic hoops is a quick way to snuff out every wisp of innovation.

What do you think?

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An Idea is a Stumbling Block

the road more travelled

Creative Commons License photo credit: simonsterg

Ideas are dime a dozen. Anyone with imagination, and an ounce of logic, can spin a ton of them. Turning these ideas into reality is always a challenge.

I came across this neat article on MSDN magazine on pushing your ideas to reality. The quote that struck a distinct chord in me was –

It is not the idea that gets people’s attention; it’s your credentials. So if you don’t already have an established track record as an innovator, you will have a harder time getting people to listen to you.

That is exactly what stops many of us from revealing our ideas. Perhaps we were ignored earlier or shot down with disdain or even received a response as to how ridiculous the proposition was.

An Idea is a Fork in the Road

Let us get this straight. Every new idea is a stumbling block. It is like a fork in the road where we expected a straight line. Every fork demands new decisions. New decisions carry a cognitive cost and cause disruption to original cherished goals.

No wonder people do not take ideas seriously. Because it takes effort to recognize the worth of an idea and stand behind it. Note that it is not just a question of what it would cost in resources, namely time and money, but the cognitive cost of evaluating the new possibility and correcting the course that was set much earlier.

Old Goals and Familiar Friends

People grow fond of their goals. Anything that has aged with them tends to have familiarity and they understand it in a lot of detail. Ask anyone who has spent time programming in a particular language for 10years to change their primary language for another. You will find them fighting tooth and nail against that possibility, their mind goes blank. The fluid expertise and productivity will be replaced by an erring and unsure hand.

Structuring, Positioning and Presentation

This is worth bearing in mind the next time you wish to communicate your new idea. Consciously seek to structure your idea, the positioning of it and the presentation of it to reduce the threshold for acceptance as much as possible.

Think like the listener..

..of the idea. Understand their priorities and adapt your message. If you are speaking to senior management you could emphasize how your idea reduces cost, or increases profit margins, or positions a product for market leadership. When speaking to an architect you could emphasize the standard APIs, clean extensibility, open data formats and so on. The MSDN article speaks about this aspect much better than here. Go ahead and read it.

I have merely highlighted the aspect of selling the idea out here. The problem of building enough credibility to get an initial hearing still remains. And that would be the topic of another post!

What do you think? What other impediments exist for idea acceptance?