David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Mon 25 Jun 07 21:42
Today we're delighted to welcome back author Scott Berkun to Inkwell. Scott is an author, public speaker and consultant. He worked as a manager at Microsoft from 1994-2003, on projects including (v1-5) of Internet Explorer, Windows and MSN. He started his own consulting practice in 2003, wrote the best seller "The art of project management", and teaches a graduate course in creative thinking at the University of Washington. Scott grew up in Queens NYC, studied design, philosophy and computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, graduating with a B.S. in Logic and Computation ('94). He currently lives somewhere deep in the woods outside of Seattle, Washington. Leading the conversation with Scott is our own Scott Underwood, who spends his days surrounded by this very subject at the design and innovation firm IDEO. Welcome, Scott and Scott!
Get Shorty (esau) Tue 26 Jun 07 20:56
Scott Berkun, thanks for writing "The Myths of Innovation," a valuable and entertaining book. Valuable, because I believe these myths about innovation do permeate our culture, and entertaining, because it's a pleasure to read and occasionally stumble over a humorous aside. (Don't miss perhaps the best colophon ever written.) For those joining the conversation without the benefit of the book at hand, Scott has tackled one of business's most prevalent buzzwords: innovation. Every current business leader, from CEO to project manager, knows that "innovation" is the highest goal one can attain, whether it's devising a way to efficiently print multiple copies of a book or providing a new handheld, touchscreen, telephone/computer hybrid. And yet several myths about the process persist: the myth of the lone inventor, of a "lightning strike" idea, of natural genius, of the best idea succeeding on its own merits. I hope to step through Scott's findings and help dispel these misconceptions, or at least send some more people towards his book: Scott, let's start with that big word in the title, that I fear has as many definitions as "love," "truth," and "chili." What is "innovation"?
Scott Berkun (scottberkun) Tue 26 Jun 07 22:47
I have to confess I hate the word innovation. First recommendation I make to people is to stop using it. If you mean "do things better" say that. If you mean "take more risks" swap that in. The word innovation is so overloaded by today's tech/business culture that most of the time it's meaningless. It's so vague that half the time press release writers use it they themselves have no idea what they're trying to say. They're being deliberately vague. I sometimes consult with companies in particular trouble. They've gone so far as to compound the word, as in: incremental innovation, disruptive innovation, optimizing innovation. They have innovation teams, innovation reports, chief innovation officers, innovation everything. I seriously think half the problem is that people are communicating so poorly around creative work that they confuse talking about it with actually doing it. Da Vinci didn't have an innovation plan. Edison didn't describe the lightbulb as a disruptive innovation. There's no reason to assume throwing the word around gives anyone particular power to make good creative things happen. But to segue out of my opening rant, if you said write a concise, clear, simple dictionary entry that few people would argue over, or else my few remaining brain cells will get the lead treatment from the virtual gun you're pointing at my head, I'd say this "innovation is positive change".
Get Shorty (esau) Wed 27 Jun 07 07:51
No argument here! "Creative work" is the crux of the biscuit we're talking about, and in the business world it describes everything from making your current products better, cheaper, or faster to deciding what to do five years from now. Companies want to "manage innovation" at every step of the way, from idea to execution, and yet there is no foolproof path to the next iMousetrap. On the other hand, business magazines regularly profile heroes of innovation, and it does seem that some companies do get it right over and over. There are enough cases of "positive change" to learn from that bookshelves everywhere are near to collapsing. So, let's talk about some of the myths of innovation and why they persist. One image is so prevalent it serves as shorthand for several myths at once: the light bulb. How does this object represent so many wrong ideas about business creativity?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 27 Jun 07 08:59
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I dare you to make less sense! (jet) Wed 27 Jun 07 10:32
Hi Scott, thanks for participating in this. In one of your footnotes, you say something to the effect of about not expecting everyone to make everything but that convience impairs the discovery of what it is people like to make. Do you think the current popularity of DIY culture -- with magazines like Make/Craft and the hipster rediscovery of 19th arts -- is a symptom of this or something that could be used to leverage creativity? It's probably anecdotal, but some of the best problem-solvers I've worked with in software development have also had external hobbies where they actually made physical things. Some make art for burning man and others elaborate costumes for science fiction convention, but they're all still making things. Is this something you think employers should encourage? Instead of having team offsites that involve bumper cars or frisbee golf, should managers be sending their employees to The Crucible to learn metalworking or the local yarn store to take up knitting? (Oh, and sorry to come in late, I thought this started next week...)
Christian Crumlish (xian) Wed 27 Jun 07 10:43
Scott, great to see you here. I caught your presentation at the Adaptive Path office a little while ago and really enjoyed it. I loved the visuals in your slidedeck, and you handled the know-it-alls in the audience gracefully! The crux of your book seems to be that we've inherited misconceptions about how innovation works. I really like that you are demystifying this in a sense, since those myths sort of function as barriers to creativity when people don't find the real world operating that way. When you consult with people directly, how much "deprogramming" do you have to do to get people to let go of old ideas about how innovation works? Is it easy, like the scales falling from their eyes, or do you have to keep doing it over and over?
Scott Berkun (scottberkun) Wed 27 Jun 07 11:02
> Esau wrote: > > One image is so prevalent it serves as shorthand > for several myths at once: the light bulb. How does > this object represent so many wrong ideas about > business creativity? You mean you've never had a magical lightbulb appear over your head when you've suddenly found an idea? :) There's several different misnomers about light bulbs - the first is that Edison didn't invent them, he perfected and successfully made a business out of them, but was clearly not the first person to use filaments in glass tubes to light things (He settled a lawsuit with Swan over invention claims). Another is that it took years for electric lighting to become standard - wiring homes and building powerstations were harder challenges than making glass bulbs, and that's part of why Edison was successful: he thought about the systems needed to support inventions, rather than just inventions themselves.
Scott Berkun (scottberkun) Wed 27 Jun 07 11:11
Scott Berkun (scottberkun) Wed 27 Jun 07 11:11
> jet wrote > > Do you think the current popularity of DIY > culture -- with magazines like Make/Craft and > the hipster rediscovery of 19th arts -- is a > symptom of this or something that could be > used to leverage creativity? I think DIY is great - and Make magazine (http://www.makezine.com) has proven the popular interest in making things. The only gripe is getting off the map - following a set of instructions to make a potato rocket launcher is one thing, but tinkering, inventing, going places others haven't gone is another. When I was a kid (here we go...) LEGOs used to come in big kits without fancy pictures on the cover or instructions to follow, and kids had to invent their own worlds. Now every box has one specific thing you're supposed to make - it's a different framework. Sure they're related, following instructions can teach tricks used to create other things, but the initial premise is different - know what I mean?
Scott Berkun (scottberkun) Wed 27 Jun 07 11:15
> Jet also wrote: > > It's probably anecdotal, but some of the best > problem-solvers I've worked with in software > development have also had external hobbies > where they actually made physical things. I don't think it's anecdotal at all. Good problem solvers can abstract that skill to many domains - I do believe someone who gets problem solving and creative thinking can do it in multiple domains. > Instead of having team offsites that involve bumper > cars or frisbee golf, should managers be sending > their employees to The Crucible to learn > metalworking or the local yarn store to take up knitting? Yes! This is a great idea! One trick to teaching creativity is just showing people new connections between things. Give them more experiences and context to draw from when they're back at work. You can't force it, so you need to make metalworking or yarn fun in some way - maybe combine skill learning with game playing in some way - but there's big evidence diversity of mind amplifies creativity.
Scott Berkun (scottberkun) Wed 27 Jun 07 11:19
> I caught your presentation at the Adaptive Path office > a little while ago and really enjoyed it. I loved the visuals > in your slidedeck, and you handled the know-it-alls in the > audience gracefully! Lets hope I live up to your expectations here in inkwell! :) > The crux of your book seems to be that we've inherited > misconceptions about how innovation works. I really like > that you are demystifying this in a sense... > When you consult with people directly, how much > "deprogramming" do you have to do to get people to > let go of old ideas about how innovation works? > Is it easy, like the scales falling from their eyes, > or do you have to keep doing it over and over? It depends - often it's hard. People have built up these misconceptions into castles of belief, with walls and moats of assumptions they're proud to defend, and sometimes entire organizations rally around those beliefs, however false. What works best is to start small and be pragmatic - forget concepts, focus on actions. Lets redesign this website, lets change this process, lets actually work on doing something. And in doing, instead of talking, it's harder for misconceptions to hold up. Also history can work wonders - the right story of Edison, Da Vinci or Steve Jobs can cut through misconceptions quickly.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Wed 27 Jun 07 11:32
Perhaps there's another lesson about light bulbs -- that Edison tried 500 things or whatever it was before finding the right thing to use as a filament. #9 -- I hate that about Legos too.
Scott Berkun (scottberkun) Wed 27 Jun 07 11:55
The light bulb story also plays on the lone inventor myth - that Edison was working alone and that no one else had ever thought to make powered light before. Truth is, the world already had lights - NYC, Boston and other major cities had natural gas and candle lights all over the place. They were a pain, but lighting wasn't a radically new idea. And of course there's also the fact that Edison himself didn't do all the work - he had a staff of inventors in Menlo park, including Latimer, who made the reliable carbon filament. btw: I miss my childhood legos. And what happened to nap time? I swear the world would be a better place if more people took afternoon naps (after milk and cookies of course).
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Wed 27 Jun 07 12:20
Sara Mednick recently wrote a book about the very thing: the value of naps. She was interviewed yesterday on NPR. Here's some info on the book: http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780761142904-2
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Wed 27 Jun 07 12:24
Meanwhile, regarding the topic at hand... >>>I seriously think half the problem is that people are communicating so poorly around creative work that they confuse talking about it with actually doing it.<<< It has seemed to me for several years that corporations, in general, manage creative people very poorly. Companies love to measure things -- "you can't manage what you can't measure" is a familiar cliche -- yet creativity resists measurement. There are exceptions. Ad agencies generally seem to know how to manage create people, for example. But on the whole, for-profit companies seem mystified by the creative process even as they depend on it.
Scott Berkun (scottberkun) Wed 27 Jun 07 12:50
Steve - thanks for getting us back on track (You must have had your nap already today). You're right - creative people are often managed poorly. The history of American business isn't centered on creative thinking - the big industries that defined our economy, Oil, Steel, Banking, Agriculture, always had a small number of creative people and often they were founders. Chapter 6 in the book is all about this and what it means for managers who say that want more creativity - they've been trained to behave in all kinds of ways that are antithetical to creative work and need to reconsider their assumptions if they have the goal of innovation. "You can't manage what you can't measure" is ridiculous. How do you do something new in that philosophy? I think the phrase is best interpreted as "You need to have goals you can evaluate work against to make progress", but that leaves out the dreaded M word (measure).
bill braasch (bbraasch) Wed 27 Jun 07 12:59
Peter Drucker, in his book _Innovation and Entrepreneurship_ (a word that never made it past that title), sees this as a natural progression from sorta out of control but having a lot of options to way in control but out of ideas. Adding controls reduces the risk of screwing up what you're doing now, but also reduces your chances of finding ways to improve it. We want our customer service operations to be tidy with good processes, but over in the skunk works, its good to try new ideas before committing to a final design. Esther Dyson asked Mike Maples what he did at Microsoft back when he had gone from IBM to Microsoft. He said 'adult supervision'. She asked what that entailed. He said he was there to help keep the place tidy, then he pointed out that this did not mean the same as 'organized'. I suppose organized happened somewhat later in the game.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Wed 27 Jun 07 13:05
Interesting. Several months ago I checked the business section in a couple of large, well-stocked, well-known bookstores to see what they had about managing creativity. Zilch. But if you wanted management lessons from "Jesus, CEO," or from Sun Tzu or from rapacious Jack Welch, they could give you plenty of those, definitely. I was not surprised, alas. Saddened, though.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Wed 27 Jun 07 13:17
Welcome, Scott. I like how you're challenging the way the term "innovation" is applied. Some say that the best innovators are the entrepreneurs who are able to see around corners that others can't; they envision a product or service to fill a market need; this is venture innovation at its purest. Innovating within systems to perfect the product or service is another. Innovation that deals with system efficiencies is another. Innovating how to present the product or system in the best favorable light is yet another. In many ways the type of talent or skill set for these various "innovations" differ widely. The entrepreneurial genius is not often the marketing genius or the financing genius or the organizational genius or the R&D genius or the system's handling genius, etc. How does the "Vice President of Innovation" address all these manifestations and actually abet corporate creativity?
Scott Berkun (scottberkun) Wed 27 Jun 07 13:35
Bill - Drucker's book is excellent. It was one of my favorite books discovered in my research for Myths of Innovation. All organisms and organizations go through phases of growth, stability and decline. It's natural. But even if you're a manager of an old team, in an old business, there are creative ways to handle stability. There are always opportunities to get better, smarter, or to pick one part of a business at a time to explore reinventing or innovating on. I think sometimes the opposite is true - customer service organizations and cost-controlled groups often have the greatest opportunities for innovation because they are kept on short leashes all the time. Even if efficiency and low-costs are the goal, there are plenty of creative ways to achieve those ends. That's part of what people miss: any goal can be pursued creatively, even goals about conservation, lowering risks, or reducing costs.
streaming irreverent commentary (pauli) Wed 27 Jun 07 13:45
I'm at the airport and losing power so I'm not gonna have time to post but I hope to be involved in this conversation. Having written a biography of Edison and also being editor of his papers I've thought a lot about innovation. BTW, Latimer had nothing to do with teh success of the carbon filament lamp. He did develop a modification of a knock-off lamp and was a very successful person in the Maxim company and later worked as a patent exert for the Edison Co. but there are a lot of myths about his work for Edison. You might check out: http://edison.rutgers.edu/latimer/blueprnt.htm. Hope to have some time this evening to check back in presuming I ever get to Detroit. I'll be taking part in a teachers institute at the Henry Ford Museum tomorrow where I'lll be talking about the histoyr of invention and innovation.
Scott Berkun (scottberkun) Wed 27 Jun 07 13:54
> s-macfarlane wrote: > > In many ways the type of talent or skill set for > these various "innovations" differ widely. The > entrepreneurial genius is not often the marketing genius > or the financing genius or the organizational genius or > the R&D genius or the system's handling genius, etc. > How does the "Vice President of Innovation" address all > these manifestations and actually abet corporate creativity? There are differences of course, but similarities too. Any innovator has to: come up with ideas, do research, do experiments, learn from mistakes, and be willing to take risks. So if I'm VP of Innovation I'm looking to cultivate the core attributes all innovators have. I also think if you're a manager, or a VP, your job is not to have all the talents in you, but to hire / grow a team of people that have the skills and drives needed, and then protect them in doing innovation. Much of the research I did on management surfaces in Chapter 6, and it calls out the key traits successful managers of innovation had.
Scott Berkun (scottberkun) Wed 27 Jun 07 14:01
> Pauli wrote: > Having written a biography of Edison and also being editor > of his papers I've thought a lot about innovation. BTW, > Latimer had nothing to do with teh success of the carbon filament lamp. Pauli, it's an honor to have you here. One concern I have with the book is that I'll unintentionally propagate myths, so please, by all means, jump in where I'm on your turf of knowledge. You'd know better than I but there are many positive references to Latimer. Not sure how that started or why, but there are popular sources that credit him with contributing to Carbon Filaments (http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/latimer.html)
Jamais Cascio (cascio) Wed 27 Jun 07 15:51
It seems to me that there are important language distinctions that some of the discussion elides. Innovation is not identical to creativity, nor is it identical to invention. Innovation is implicitly useful, whereas an idea can be creative without having real application. An innovation is something new (pretty much by definition), but can be a new (and transformative/delightful) use of an existing product or service. Even describing innovation as "positive change" seems to me to be missing an important aspect, the novelty/creativity. A return to core business processes (such as Apple dumping the variety of oddball products and services when Jobs returned) can be a positive change, but I don't think many people would describe it as innovative. There's also an element of innovation as a way of satisfying demands that hadn't yet been recognized as demands -- the "I didn't know I needed this, but I do" syndrome. The real skill of innovators, in this model, isn't in coming up with new ideas, but in recognizing the veiled unmet needs. For me, the closest definition would be "creativity applied to meet tacit needs," but I would accept "creativity applied."
Scott Berkun (scottberkun) Wed 27 Jun 07 18:04
Definitions can be useful, but often they're a distraction. Philosophers (and book authors) are notorious for believing if they can just define things right, everything else will be easy, or that until something has a word for it, it doesn't exist (reification). So I agree there are many distinctions we can make - I just don't think they're critical to actually innovating. All the great innovators didn't need those distinctions/definitions to do what they did: they were trying to solve a specific problem and got on with it. And I hope readers of the book leave with the same kind of clarity. One problem is with the word novelty or even creative. A "New" thing is entirely relative, as often what one culture thinks of as "new" has been around in some form in another for ages. Steve Jobs, Da Vinci, Edison all acknowledged that invention was combination and creativity was observation - seeing a new way to use an old thing.
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