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.