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The Myths of Innovation

Scott Berkun
Published by O'Reilly Media
0-596-52705-5 192 pages
£ 17.50
Published: 22nd May 2007
reviewed by Roger Whittaker
   in the September 2007 issue (pdf), (html)
bookcover  

This small book examines defines and examines ten widely held assumptions about where innovative ideas come from and how they are developed (the ten ``myths of innovation'' of the title: one for each chapter).

This most definitely is not one of those books that claims to give you a recipe for success: it examines (in straightforward language) the facts about how people historically have come up with creative and world-changing ideas and contrasts those facts with some of the comforting stories we tell ourselves about these things.

Although the book is deceptively simply (and playfully) written, Berkun has clearly spent a great deal of time researching, thinking about and distilling its content. The points he makes are sometimes fairly obvious and sometimes counter-intuitive, but the way he puts them together is thought-provoking and interesting.

One of his most important themes is that we like to delude ourselves about how innovation takes place: in the ``myth of epiphany'' (chapter 1) he stresses both the ``shoulders of giants'' theme and compares the production of an innovative idea to putting in the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle: something that can only happen if you have been working patiently on the puzzle for some time. The idea of a long period of incubation is something that he stresses with various historical examples.

In chapter 5 ``the myth of the lone inventor'' he examines various cases where we think that an invention or idea was the sole work of a particular inspired individual and shows that the reality is far more complex. Berkun takes some of the most well-known and important inventions (the light bulb, powered flight, the automobile) and shows that the stories we are commonly told about them are grossly simplified. But as with the ``myth of epiphany'' the common simplification somehow answers a psychological need in ourselves.

It was good to see Berkun quoting Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on his concept of flow: one of the best descriptions of how the right kind of work (or play) can both be creative and enjoyable at the same time.

There are footnotes on almost every page, many of these will make you want to go off and investigate the fascinating stories they refer to: among others the history of ``post-it notes'', the story of the Phillips screw versus the Robertson screw, the history of tyres and how the art of making concrete was lost and rediscovered.

Although not specifically related to the computer industry, many of Berkun's examples will be familiar: he mentions Xerox PARC a number of times and discusses the conditions of work and management approach which made it so productive of innovation. He notes how Google and others have consciously tried to create the necessary conditions for creative and innovative work to flourish. Other familiar examples which he looks at to illustrate some of his points are Dan Bricklin's development of the idea of the spreadsheet and Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web.

The book cover tells us that Berkun was a Microsoft employee who worked on the development of Internet Explorer: discard any prejudices which that fact elicits -- this book is well worth reading.

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