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Four Major Myths of Innovation

Posted on  28 October 10  by 

Comment (6)

It is amazing how we all share this vision of innovation: innately creative tinkerers, working away alone in a laboratory (probably in a garage somewhere) until, “Eureka!” they solve the problem and create the product the world has been waiting for.

Turns out that’s pretty much all wrong.  At MLC, we’re doing research on innovation right now (help us out by taking this survey and we’ll send you a copy of the results).  Along the way I read The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun and took a look at Steven Johnson’s work on innovation — you can see some of it in this TED talk and the rest in his new book Where Good Ideas Come From.  Together, they show a more accurate picture of innovation.  Here are some of the myths I found most surprising:

  • The Myth of the Lone Inventor. As Johnson points out, good ideas are actually a network.  The best ideas come not from individuals working by themselves but rather when people interact with each other – most often in discussing the problems they face.  (This was literally observed by Dartmouth professor Kevin Dunbar when he monitored scientists and when they came up with ideas).  In many cases, ideas actually come from people in different fields talking to each other, each applying their own known practices to each other’s problems.
  • The Myth of Epiphany.  Turns out Newton probably was never hit by an apple.  Similarly, the founder of eBay didn’t create the company so his wife could trade PEZ dispensers.  These are examples of stories that were made up after the fact to popularize and promote an idea, because we all love the idea of the ‘eureka moment’ so much.  But as Berkun points out, the epiphany myth discounts the work done up until that point by the inventor and by those in related fields.  Moreover, each innovation is building on many ideas and innovations that came before it.  There could be no Internet without years of innovations in electronics, networking, and packet-switching software. Interestingly, our own minds fail us when it comes to the moment of invention.  Darwin, in his autobiography, states that he had a moment of epiphany when he realized the theory of natural selection.  But when researchers look back at his diaries of the time, the idea was actually there long before the ‘eureka moment.’  Darwin believed he had an epiphany, but ideas are slippery, and while they may crystallize in a moment, usually they were there in some form all along.
  • The Myth that Good Ideas are Immediately Obvious.   Even if an innovator strongly believes in his or her ideas, most of the time it is a long uphill slog to get others to agree.  From our standpoint looking back at accepted products and services, it’s hard to imagine that anyone ever thought they were bad ideas.  Yet the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation said in 1977 “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Rare is the breakthrough product that hasn’t had more skepticism than acceptance.  I really like the quote from Howard H Aiken, one of the early contributors to the computer, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas.  If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”
  • The Myth that Only Certain People can be Innovators.  Certainly it’s true that some people are more naturally creative than others (just like some people are better singers), but it turns out you can do a lot more for your creativity than you can for your musical talent.  As Berkun says, “The difference between creatives and others is more attitude and experience than nature.”  What distinguishes creative people?  They are less bound by convention, and they recognize that ideas don’t enter the world fully baked.  When surveyed, innovators’ top two idea-finding techniques were ‘brainstorming’ and ‘other fields.’  These techniques are proven to help make unusual connections (sometimes called ‘lateral thinking’) and provide inspiration in the building process that is involved in making an OK idea into a great idea.  And anyone can do them.

MLC members, for more on innovation, please visit our topic center, as well as our current research into breakthrough innovation.

Comments from the Network (6)

  1. Bob
    on November 1, 2010

    This article contains some useful perspectives, but shares a common flaw with other articles on innovation in this and other forums: the author cannot seem to distinguish between an idea, a discovery, an invention, and an innovation. They are related but quite different concepts, and using one to illustrate the other is very confusing. The concept of innovation alone is difficult enough without muddying it up with the other ones.

  2. Doug Martin
    on November 1, 2010

    Karen, thank you for sharing your insights from the book. I especially like #3, the myth of epiphany. I believe a defined process is needed in order to transform nascent ideas into mature, cash generating innovations for the business. This process should contain at its foundation a continual exploration of needs, rather than a reliance upon proverbial “eureka!” type moments to fill the pipeline.

  3. Bob
    on November 1, 2010

    I think Doug’s comment points out my concern about this article. He makes the valid point that you shouldn’t rely on epiphanies to generate business innovation. If you read Karen’s point, it tries to disprove the existence of epiphanies, which is clearly erroneous. Take any random (non-religious) dictionary definition of epiphany and it will read something like “A sudden realization about the nature or meaning of something.” By that definition, I know I have certainly had them, and I expect others have as well. Why, then, is it a myth?

  4. Karen Freeman
    on November 1, 2010

    Thanks for the comments on this, and the clarification. Perhaps that second point should be the Myth that You Should Rely on Epiphanies. Sure enough, epiphanies happen (definitely don’t want to deny that one!) — the book points out that Darwin believed he had an epiphany about natural selection, and I truly believe he did. But I think there are three points the author is making:
    1) Even when we have epiphanies, they are not moments of idea generation but rather idea crystallization. The elements of the ideas usually existed in our minds, but didn’t pull together until the moment of epiphany. And often those elements actually came from other sources.
    2) Sometimes we don’t have epiphanies, and that’s OK too — we can’t expect that the only good ideas are ones with that Eureka moment.
    3) Most importantly, even if you have a crystallized idea in your head, your work is far from done. To Bob’s point about the difference between ideas and innovation, an idea changes many times over before it is launched commercially.

    Here’s my best guess at the difference between idea, discovery, invention and innovation — would love to hear responses.
    An Idea: a proposal for a change of any kind
    A Discovery: identification of a principle of the world such as a fact of nature or a customer insight (and, presumably, potential applications for that principle)
    An Invention: typically a novel way to solve a customer need that involves technical expertise
    An Innovation: Any idea, discovery or invention that is commercially viable.

    What do you think?

  5. Bob
    on November 2, 2010

    Karen, thanks for your clarification. I think I was negatively predisposed by the heading for this article in the RTEC Insight Daily (“There is No Such Thing as a “Eureka” Moment…” Really? Archimedes might disagree…), which would lead me to rewrite the 4 myths as:

    The myth that all inventors are lone inventors (although there are plenty of issued US patents with a lone inventor listed)

    The myth of epiphany we already covered, although the fact that Darwin had earlier information pointing to natural selection doesn’t preclude a “sudden realization” on his part of what it meant. It’s all too easy to look retrospectively at information and conclude that it was already known (Sort of like “Good ideas are obvious, right?)

    The third myth is frankly confusing – even if it were a myth, what effect does it have on innovation?

    The myth that only certain people can innovate is better stated as “Anyone can innovate, but the skill is NOT evenly distributed.” When the innovators you describe above get together to brainstorm, it is not my experience that they invite just anyone to join in on the theory that “anyone can innovate.” There is a time and resource cost to sorting through ideas, good or bad. Put another way, “The race isn’t always to the swift, but that’s the way to bet it.”

    To end on a high note, I think your definitions of idea, discovery, invention, and innovation are very good. The next exercise is to make a Venn diagram of their relationships, e.g, all innovations are a subset of ideas, but not all ideas are innovations. You will end up with a complex series of relationships which I don’t believe are evident to some readers, who use all the terms as nearly interchangable. If RTEC wants to be a thought leader in discussions about innovation, they will have to refrain from dispensing simple but erroneous sound bites.

  6. Mark Casparian
    on November 4, 2010

    Based on my experience as a long time dev. engineer and author of 17 patents, I can tell you that the key to many new innovations and inventions is recognizing a particular problem either that hasn’t been solved before, or simply, no one has actually ever recognized as a problem before. A good way to be in a position to recognize such opportunities is to know your customer, understand their behavior/usage model and experiences with your product or service. Put yourself in a position where you are your own customer – so you see problems and desirable features/experiences from their eyes.

    I agree with the author: anyone can innovate, and the best ideas do come from group discussions where each person has a different set of experiences and insights.

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