Scott Berkun — The myths of innovation

A presentation given at Web Directions South, Sydney Australia, September 28 2007.

Catch Part 2 of this amazing presentation at Web Directions @media in London in June 2010.

Presentation slides

Session description

Much of what we know about innovation is wrong. That’s the bet this entertaining keynote takes as it romps through the history of innovation, dispelling the mythologies we’ve constructed about how we got here. This talk, loosely based on Scott Berkun’s recent O’Reilly book (May 2007), will help you to recognize the myths, understand their popularity (even if you don’t believe in them), and how to use the truth of innovations past to help you in your work today.

About Scott Berkun

http://​www​.scottberkun​.com/

Scott Berkun PortraitScott Berkun worked on the Internet explorer team at Microsoft from 1994–1999 and left the company in 2003 with the goal of writing enough books to fill a shelf. He wrote the 2005 best seller, The Art of Project Management, and his second book, The Myths of Innovation, was published in May 2007. He makes a living writing, teaching and speaking. He teaches a graduate course in creative thinking at the University of Washington, runs the sacred places architecture tour at NYC’s GEL conference, and writes about innovation, design and management at scottberkun​.com

Presentation transcript

Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee the accuracy of this transcription.

Thank you. Good morning. People in the back still awake back there? How many of you are morning people? Raise your hand if I’m coherent to you. So I am not a morning person, and that will be revealed in the next 45 minutes. It is also – I’m working to the disadvantage that I’m an American, which is two problems: One, it means I’m not very bright, but second, it means that it’s about 3:00 A.M. my local time, so 3:00 A.M. is not usually a time when I’m trying to be articulate and intelligent. So what I’m going to do and try and wake myself up is I actually have a very special story to tell you about this conference.

So I have a website, like many of you do, where I write things, and I try to be coherent, but I have a problem, like many of you do, that my grammar is not always what my English teacher would hope it would be. So people sometimes come by my website and they read a blog entry, and they leave me a note that says ‘Scott, you’ve spelled this wrong,’ or ‘It’s not “it’s” with an apostrophe’ or something like that. And I got one of these notes recently, about three or four weeks ago, and if the person is polite and they’re actually very helpful, I usually respond and say ‘Thank you so much. I appreciate the help. Can I send you a copy of my book?’

So this happened a few weeks ago. I sent her this email back saying ‘Thank you. Can I send you a copy of my book?’ and she was very flattered. She said ‘Yes, that would be great. The problem is I’m really far away, I’m in Australia, so it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense for you to send the book that far.’ And I responded and I said, ‘Well, truly it’s kind of a small-​​world thing that you’re in Australia, because I’m going to be in Australia in two or three weeks. Ha ha – isn’t that funny?’ And she replies and says ‘Yeah, you know, actually, I’m going to be in at a conference in Sydney, Australia, and you’re the speaker at the conference.’ And I replied to her and say ‘You know what? I’ll give you a copy.’ And she said ‘No, I’m a shy person, and I don’t think that you can find me at the conference.’

So my solution, given that this is a keynote and hoping that she’s an early riser: Is Vicky Falkland here? Anybody see someone standing up? Vicky, come on up, please, let me give you the book.

[Applause]

Excellent, glad that worked out.

Now we got that out of the way I can actually do my job and talk to you about innovation. So I’m going to talk to you about The Myths of Innovation. The idea for this book and the idea of this talk is that we are very bad in the tech sector understanding history, and we repeat mistakes all the time, again and again and again. And you don’t notice this when you are young in the industry – when you are 21, 22, 25, and you’re doing everything new for the first time and you think everything in the past [is] to be forgotten and ignored, because what you are doing is so new.

And that was my experience. Working on Internet Explorer in the mid-’90s I felt like we were doing stuff that had never been done before. And then by the time I got older, I’m now 35 years old, by the time I got older I recognised [that] I’d seen in my own career the repetitions of certain kinds of mistakes when you came to think about innovation. So the book is an attempt to go back through history and use history – the truth of history, not the mythology, not the legendary stories, but the truth of history – as a guide for helping us all thing about how we actually do creative work today. So that’s what I’m going to talk to you about.

The first legend I want to talk to you about is this guy – how many people know who this is? Isaac Newton. Can anyone in the front row tell me what the 10-​​second version of the story is? He saw an apple fall and discovered gravity. How many of you have heard this story before? About 70% of you, 80% of you. Now, this is probably the greatest legend in all the world when it comes to thinking about discovering innovation and invention. And the sad part of the story is that it is not true. I know that breaks many of your hearts because you base your life on these apple stories, but it’s not true.

The true part of the story is this. Sir Newton, very late in his life, after he had been world-​​famous, he had a biographer come [who] wanted to write a story of his life. And the biographer was pressing him and was asking him ‘Hey, how do you come up with your ideas? Where do they come from? What it is that you do?’ And Isaac Newton was a curmudgeonly mad-​​scientist kind of guy. He probably was not a very easy to interview. And what Newton did say at the end of that interview was he offered an anecdote – he was intending to offer the story as an anecdote.

And he said: He may have when he was younger looked out a window out to the tree grove in his backyard, and if he saw an apple fall, he may have asked the question, ‘Well, why does it fall? Why did it fall at that rate of speed? Why did it fall at that angle?’ and asked all kinds of questions like that.

And he was intending, as best as I can tell, to try to suggest a thought process – ask questions, be curious, not to take things for granted. But the nugget of the story was so powerful that that nugget lives on much longer than the rest of the biography did. And another writer named Voltaire, an innovative writer in the French Enlightenment, he took that part of the story, the apple-​​falling part – all the conditions [Newton] may have seen 20 years ago, the conditions went out the window, and Voltaire used this story as a way to help highlight the work of Newton, to help promote the idea of enlightenment, the new scientific age.

Then 50 years went by, and another writer took an even smaller part of the story and modified it. Instead of ‘Newton had possibly seen an apple fall in his backyard,’ the story then became ‘Newton was actually under the tree and it hit him on the head.’ And that’s the story that we know. That’s the story that’s told again and again, certainly in American cartoons. This story comes up again and again and again.

Now, this is a pattern here that is played out in many different legends and mythologies about invention and innovation. And the pattern is called the myth of epiphany – the idea there’s a singular moment in time that is the powerful moment, that that is the moment when something was created or born or brought into the world. So in the story, Newton is the victim or the passive participant in a moment of epiphany – he is struck by the apple and that’s where the discovery of gravity came from.

Now, Newton was alive in the late 1700s. Now, how many people think that we didn’t know about gravity before 1700? That’s the story; we like to believe that somehow there was a single moment in time when gravity was all of a sudden all at once discovered, as if up until no one knew what would happen if you put something down. That would be a surprise. So that’s a pattern that played out: It’s the singular moment. Before that moment there is nothing; after that moment there is everything.

I’m actually only going to talk to you about three myths today. I’m going to talk some more about the myth of epiphany. I’m going to talk to about the history of innovation and some of the things that we are not really told and we kind of ignored. And the last thing – which is probably most important to you, because many of you are developers and designers and innovators yourself – the mythology around how people respond to innovation.

So another famous story fitting on this myth of epiphany, if there is a singular moment, involves this guy Archimedes. How many people know a story about Archimedes in the bathtub, anybody? Can anyone give me the 10-​​second version of the bathtub story? He said ‘Eureka!’ and jumped out of the bath. Asked to measure the amount of gold.

Most of the time I do a lot of public speaking and talk about innovation a lot. Most people remember bathtub and someone running through the streets naked yelling ‘Eureka!’ Those are the two parts people remember – very few remember what it was that he actually discovered. So Archimedes was a rock-​​star/​innovator/​inventor guy. He was sort of like da Vinci, but he was 1500 years earlier than da Vinci. This was early Roman-​​era time. And the king asked Archimedes, as the rock-​​star creative-​​thinker guy, he said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this problem. I got this gift from another kingdom, this gold crown. I don’t trust this king – I don’t believe this crown is gold. I want you, Archimedes, to determine if it is actually made of gold or not.’

And Archimedes said, ‘Yeah, I can do that, no problem – I’m Archimedes. They’re going to be talking about me at web-​​development conferences 2000 years from now, so I can take care of it.’ But it was actually really difficult. No one had ever done this before. So he spent a lot of time – we don’t really know how much time, but a lot of time – coming up with different ways to try to solve the problem. And he kept failing, could not find a solution. One day he gets into the bathtub, and we assume he gets in the bathtub as a kind of stress relief – he’s trying to escape the problem for a little while – and notices that when he puts his arm or leg into the water, that the water displaces equal to the volume of his arm. Now he knows the volume of something.

If you know the volume of something and the weight of something, you can compute its density. And he knew that gold and lead had different densities, he could tell them apart and he could have an answer for his crown. That’s the true part of the story, that’s the part that most people forget, and I’m sure you’ll just remember naked person/‘Eureka!’ By the way, ‘eureka’ is the Greek word for ‘I have found it, I have done it’; that’s why he was saying that when he ran through the streets.

Now, this story plays on the same mythologies, in that we know this singular moment when something happens. The story is powerful because it lets us believe there’s a singular moment. The bathtub is the powerful thing: When he got into the bathtub, something magical happened that we cannot describe; it’s magical, it’s something outside of us.

Now back to the Newton story briefly, in the Newton story, the mythologised version, Newton is under the tree, apple falls and hits him on the head, and that’s the discovery of gravity. Now, in that version of the story, who is the protagonist? The apple. What’s Newton doing? Nothing. Newton is lying down, he’s like a slacker guy, he’s chilling out, apple hits him on the head, now he gets the idea. So all the myths of epiphany that you have ever heard about accidental occurrences, about momentary breakthrough, all of a sudden somebody got an idea they’ve never had before, they played on the notion that somehow all ideas are external to us, that there is a muse out there that is mythical and magical, and if we are lucky, we’ll be blessed by it.

But if we are not lucky, then it’s not our fault – the burden of being innovative or inventive is not on us. And that’s part of why these myths of epiphany are so pervasive and so powerful, is because they comfort us. They are entertaining, they are accidental, they are funny. And they make it seem like Newton didn’t spend, I don’t know, his entire life asking questions about science, didn’t spend his entire life doing experiments trying to solve problems, it discounts all the things that we don’t want to admit to ourselves are true, about how real creative work happens.

Now there’s lots of research that’s been done in the last 30 or 40 years about what’s really going on in our brains when we have a new idea, what’s the creative process like internally. This is stuff that people like Archimedes and Newton didn’t have access to, but we have access to it now. So one of the goals of the book was to try to take all this information and distil that into these mythologies and try to break them apart.

So we like to think of ideas as these discrete things, that they are things that you can hold, and if only we could get a big pile of them and keep them together in our office, whenever we need one we could pull one out, and now we have an epiphany and it’d be great. We like to think of it that way, these discrete units of things. But the truth of the psychology, all the psychological research that has been done, is that we know the best way to think about what goes on in our mind, is much more of a pattern system. There’s a process of thoughts, many of which are discarded and discounted, but [they] lead you in a different direction that eventually leads you to something that is a better idea that you could have thought of otherwise. It’s much more of a process of feel rather than a discrete individual idea.

Any person who sits down at their desk and says ‘I’m going to have a breakthrough now’ is guaranteed to fail. Because that’s not really using the process of the way we understand the cognitive processes, how they work. A much better approach is ‘I have to solve a problem. I’m going to pick a really hard problem and allow my brain to focus on that problem and try out different things against that problem, and if I’m lucky, or if I’m creative, I’ll come up with a creative solution to a problem.’

But I’m not thinking breakthrough, I’m not thinking epiphany. In fact, most of the people, all the legends you know of – da Vinci, the Google founders, the Flickr folks, anyone you know of – very few of them actually even use the word innovation. They just have a problem they want to solve, and it happens to be a hard problem that cannot be solved conventionally, so they have to go out of the maps to come up with a way to solve it.

So all the stories that we tell, most of the myths, the stuff that shows up in films, is the top part of the pyramid – we focus on the moment when it was finished, or when the idea was complete in someone’s mind. But if you pick any idea, anything, any technology, any creative movement in any field, and you’ll always find there’s this much larger pyramid of work, fairly ordinary-​​looking work that makes those epiphany moments possible.

Another anecdote: The telephone was invented in the late 1800s by Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson. Does anyone know a story about the invention of the telephone? Most Americans when I ask them they know the story, I guess there must have been a TV commercial or something that used it at some point, but the thing was ‘Alexander Graham Bell said “Watson, come here. I need you.” ’ That’s the phrase that most Americans know, that’s the only story they know about the invention of the telephone – that’s it, that’s the one.

There’s one bit of knowledge that people know about this great invention, that’s the one they know, which is completely useless. You can’t do anything with that, it doesn’t help you invent anything else new. So most of the stories that we know about these momentary dramatic events, and if you want to be an innovator, you want to be a creator, you have to unravel those things and look what happened before, what happened 10 minutes before that moment, 20 minutes, an hour, a day, a week.

Interesting: I mentioned the word ‘innovation’ before, one of the things I did in this book was I know I had my own knowledge from studying innovation as someone who had tried to do it, but I wanted to involve as many people as I could in the process of understanding innovation for writing about it in the book. So I did this survey asking about the word ‘innovation,’ asking them what the word meant. And this is an example to me of how you know a word is a kind of a trashy word, a word that shouldn’t be used very much, when you survey 100 people there’s a very wide distribution of answers to the question.

You’ll notice that on the web some people like the sarcastic answers, about 2% said, ‘Yes, I’ll tell you. I know what innovation is, but I won’t tell you.’ Similar, a high distribution of quality of answers, when I asked people what the greatest innovator in history was, Thomas Edison scored very high, da Vinci very high. Steve Jobs, believe or not, scored almost 10% on the survey. But again, by and large here more than 50% said it was someone other than the people that I listed. That’s a good indicator that the word is not very useful. The word ‘innovation’ is not that useful to such a wide distribution on how it’s applied or what it means.

One recommendation to you, about 20 minutes in in this history lesson: The less you use the word ‘innovation,’ the more likely you are to actually do it – I guarantee you. If ever you are in a meeting where the word innovation is used once every 30 seconds, you are in big trouble. You are in big trouble, because that means it’s being used for all kinds of different meanings that are not being clarified. So when people want to pose as innovators or creators, they use that word a lot. You can count in press releases and ads, it’s almost always a mistake.

Talking about history, you can dig up in almost any field, breakthroughs in almost any field, in science, medicine, the arts, and you’ll find these stories of innovation are much more ordinary than we like to admit. So this is a picture of a book called The Double Helix, which is written by Watson and Crick, who are the two main researchers on the DNA project in the 1940s. And the book is really short. I recommend it because it gives you a context, as a developer or as a designer, as to what innovation is actually like.

Now, these guys – we think of science as this watermark of rigour and discipline, that things are done with a specific purpose and there are formulas for everything, you go and you follow, and it’s very clear what to do next. But reading this book, it’s largely a series of hunches that are being followed and experiments that are being done without the support of the senior people in the field. They were seen as mavericks, they were seen as people who did not really participate in science, because they were pursuing something that most people had rejected.

So you can read books like this or stories like this, true stories, and you’ll find that they follow hunches, they make mistakes, they do stupid things, but they persist, and that’s where the largest thing is going to lead the possibility of a breakthrough – they persist in spite of all the things that most of us are told and stop, they persist anyway.

The other part of the mythology of innovation – many of the great examples in Western culture about greatness and great engineering came from the Romans. We have these great stories because we know there are all these buildings that are there in Rome, they are still standing up, the aqueducts still work, they can still take hot baths. The system of engineering that was built 2500 years ago, that still works. But we can’t build stuff for more than a month without it falling apart, they built stuff that lasted that long. So we like to mythologise the Romans as if they were these perfect builders, these great engineers.

The difficult part of the story for us to consider is this fact – all the crappy buildings that they built, fell down. We don’t see those. They’re not around for us to compare to the good ones. Many Roman buildings fell down, they took all the materials, and they put them into other buildings. There was several huge Roman fires, when Nero was emperor which I think was late first century AD or second century, two-​​thirds of Rome burned down.

Now, if you’re building great structures in marble, marble does not burn. They were building out of other materials – they were building out of wood. So we have some evidence – there isn’t a great deal of evidence, there is some evidence – that a lot of the construction they did was really bad. Most of the city of Rome – we believe the population of Rome was somewhere between two-​​thirds of a million and a million and a half – most of that population was in slums. All the movies that we see in the West – the modern movies, the great HBO series which I love, which is fantastic, which was on recently – we see mostly the marble Rome, the orgy-​​and-​​buffet Rome, where everyone is running around having a great time with fantastic wealth.

And those stories are true, [but] that’s for a very small minority of the population. Most people lived in buildings like these, which were effectively slums. They were notorious for falling down, for burning down, for crashing into other buildings. The mythology of Romans as great builders is true to the extent that sometimes they made great things, but most of the time, most things they made were very poor. And that was how they learned, they learned by making those mistakes.

Now, the last story I’ll tell about these mistake makings, has to do with one other example, Apollo 13, which was a fantastically popular film, at least in the United States. And this plays on another kind of mythology. This is the sequestering-​​of-​​disaster mythology. So all the stories about the space age in the United States, most of them are told from the perspective of everything went well, we got to the moon, we orbited the planet, we made a space station, we did all these great things. This story is about everything going wrong. It’s Apollo 13, so everything is supposed to go wrong, right, to make sure this fantastic drama.

But the sequestering of problem-​​solving, the sequestering of facing dead ends and having to overcome them, it’s made OK only because it’s a disaster. It helps promote the idea that all the other missions, the other 15 or 14 Apollo missions, they all went completely smoothly, which is not true. In fact no one died in Apollo 13, but there were several fatalities in test missions well before they ever got off the ground.

So a better story to think about is the history of the space race, the history of NASA, the history of the Apollo mission, is to look at the rate of failures to successes – the number of rockets that were launched off of a launch pad, the number of rockets compared to the ones that actually got into space. And that ratio is very poor. And that on purpose – they did this on purpose. Every mission was intended to fail in some way, so they could learn something new, so the next mission would have a slightly higher chance of being successful. That’s really the true story of the space race. And stories like this tend to distract us from the necessity of mistake making, and the necessity of dealing with difficult situations.

So it’s interesting to think about the modern day, what are the successes and what are the failures that we are making right now, and what are we doing to learn from them. So I saw this in the handout, which I think is a great little tool, but it does raise the question why, if we think we are so great at invention and innovation, why is it so hard to send a {TK}privy piece of email? Why is it so hard? We think we have progressed in all these fantastic ways, we’ve made the world better, and our technology is so superior, but then we see things like this, that are clearly artifacts of the complexities that we have created for ourselves. So clearly we are not getting it all right, we are still doing things wrong today.

Let’s talk about understanding history. So this bathtub story that I mentioned to you, this Archimedes story of the bathtub, this story it comes from a book, a book called Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius. Now this book is probably the first paralanguage book in the west – it is a book written by a Roman architect, and he was trying to document all the patterns.

He knew patterns for architecting – how do you make a column? how do you apply the Golden Ratio? – did all this series of little nuggets of information you would need if you were trying to be an architect. Back then – this was in first-​​century Rome – the publishing industry wasn’t quite where it is today. The only people who could publish were people who had enough money, and they had a lot of control over what they put in their books. So while the books, including this one, are not strictly about the topic that’s suggested in the title.

So this book talks about construction, construction and my religion beliefs, construction and construction kind of women I find attractive, construction construction – it goes in all these different places. But one of the places that it does go is to talk about Archimedes. So for us, at least for me, I know growing up, there was always this tension in school between the jocks and the geeks, it was this culture difference, there was always some tension between them. And apparently that was true even for Vitruvius. So there was a section in the book where he just all of sudden, he was talking about how to mix concrete or something, and all of a sudden he starts talking about how – I’m going to paraphrase this, but this will be pretty close – how the works of the mind outlast the works of the body. And he thinks of himself as a worker of the mind, that his ideas and his concepts will live on forever, because they’re intellectual, whereas the warriors and the Olympians, their stuff is very short-​​term.

And he has this philosophical rant, and he follows it up by telling the story of Archimedes, and he tells the story following that, he says ‘Archimedes goes in the bathtub’ blah blah blah, ‘and this is a great invention for all of us to ever know how to discover gold; this is proof of my theory that the mind is greater than the body.’ It literally takes up maybe half a page of the book. That is the source of the Archimedes story that 70% of you know.

We don’t have any other historical records. There’s no newspaper – Rome Today – there’s no other way for us to know, [no] patent for his discovery that we can reference what date was it done, there was nothing. That is the story. And that’s the story that gets passed on again and again, because we like it. And we like to think, OK, 2000 years ago, wow, he had plenty of time to research that and prove that those facts are true. No. In many cases the history we believe in, we have a foundation upon, is not any more accurate than the gossipy, myth-​​telling tale the PR companies do for us today.

Let’s do a hypothetical. Let’s assume for a second that we are working together on a project with the goal being innovative. We have this chart here, and we have a prototype. We make a prototype that we think is going to change the world in some way, we have some great new idea. The first thing that gets discounted by history when we look backward are all the factors that have nothing to do with design ability or engineering ability. We discount all these factors almost immediately while we mythologise how invention takes place. The role of business, political, timing, what the economics were, what was going on in the world – there are all kinds of factors, believe it or not.

A news event could happen today that renders all the work that you and I do most irrelevant. If there was a power shortage in Australia, for three months there was no electricity, well, all of us would be looking for something else to do. And innovation would cease to happen. No matter how brilliant or talented any of you were or are. Put that aside. There are all these factors we discount.

Let’s say we’re able to – on our own, we survive, there’s no power shortage, where we invent a new kind of power to support ourselves, we’ve got more prototypes, we’ve got more people involved because they see what we’re doing and it’s kind of interesting, they come on board. And they come on board and we develop a following. This group of people are now trying to innovate in the same direction, we have this group that’s building. And all of a sudden we’re starting to see something is happening, we’re making this new thing, this new paradigm, we’re doing Web 6.0, we’ve got something that we’re doing, that we believe and we think is happening.

And all of a sudden people start writing about it, and there are bloggers who are saying, ‘Yeah, this thing is happening. It started at the Web Directions conference and it’s going on and it’s going really well. And it’s going to be the future.’ Now, if we were to follow the pattern, the largest percentage of patterns involving innovative projects, what would happen next would be this. Nothing. Nothing would happen. Because most of the time, if you’re doing something innovative, that means there is risk involved, because you are doing something new, you are doing something different, you are going to a place that other people have not gone yet, and you don’t know for sure what will be there. So most projects that have the goal of innovation in them fail, probably in the order of somewhere between 60% and 80% – I’m making up a number, but it’s very larger.

The problem, though, regarding history, is those stories don’t get books written about them. They don’t make it to the headline news. They don’t make the feature film, because those stories don’t play on the mythologies we like to believe in. They don’t play on those, so we discount them. So there’s this huge story about history that the true stories of history very rarely get told, because they don’t fit the stories we want to hear.

This involves this guy. Believe it or not, I am going to make this segue work. So Captain Kirk, starship Enterprise, Star Trek. This is the only modern myth, the only modern legend that we have for exploration. And if you were to ask me to make an analogy between innovation and some other pursuit, exploration would be easily be the right one. Exploration is all the same variables, going to new places, taking on risks, doing uncertain things. What explorers are supposed to be doing, is they’re supposed to look at the map and there’s all this good stuff on the map that we’ve already drawn, then there’s a black spot on the map, and they say ‘I want to go there, that’s where I want to go. And not only do I want to go there, I’m going to go there and I’m going to find cool stuff and I’m going to bring it back.’

That’s what explorers say. That’s pretty much what innovators say. They say: Yeah, it’s never been done before. That’s why I want to go there. And I’m so confident about my own abilities or about my idea, I’m going to go to the black spot on the map and I’m going to bring something of value back.

That’s what explorers do. The problem, though, is that this guy didn’t really do that. We like to think that he did, but he didn’t. There are all these contrivances in making a television show that affect how you tell the story of exploration. First thing, most explorers spend most of their time not doing very much, wandering the ocean. They’re on the black spot on the map. There’s not that much there. They don’t know; they’re wandering around.

In his case, he had this little thing called warp drive. Start the episode, no wandering, there at the planet. Nothing interesting on the planet, go to the next planet. It’s television, it’s about speed of narrative, it’s not about educational accuracy or trying to convey a sense of what exploration is truly like.

Same thing for the transporter, all these things that are contrivances of that narrative to try to tell a better television-​​show story, not to tell you the story of innovation. So if you did up – if you’re looking for a way to crossbreed your sense of innovation, I highly recommend looking at explorers and their history.

This picture of Magellan – what did Magellan do? Circumnavigating the planet. The truth is he didn’t. He died about halfway around the world; he didn’t make it. Again the one thing that we know about this guy is not true. The truth is they wandered, they made mistakes, they had to double back, there was several mutinies. Magellan was Portuguese, and he was hired by the Spanish Empire. The Spanish and Portuguese didn’t like each other that much then. So he was a Portuguese captain of a Spanish crew. You’re going to travel around the world for two years. All kinds of things went wrong in the story that we don’t usually hear about.

Captain Cook – which is a story many of you should probably know, because it has a lot to do with why we’re all here. Captain Cook was an explorer. He also died – died somewhere in the Philippines, Fiji, somewhere around there. Hawaii? OK, closer to my turf, but good enough.

So my point is exploration involves risk and failure. Most explorers of this era, we don’t know their names. There’s dozens and dozens of explorations that were just as notable when they started as Magellan and Cook, but they didn’t make it back, they failed, they got lost, they died, who knows what happened to them. The history does not tell those stories. So we have a bias towards believing in the mythology, that the rates of success are much higher and more mystical than they actually are. So my challenge to you, my second challenge to you, besides not using the word ‘innovation,’ my second challenge to you is pick any invention, any one, from the projector that is projecting this screen, to your laptop, the first cellphone, the first computer mouse, anything that you use that was invented at some point. I challenge you to spend a half-​​hour looking up the history of the origin of that idea, and I guarantee you it will be way more interesting and way more familiar to you, familiar to your own practice and work, that you thought possible. And that’s the connection I’m hoping to make in this book and in this talk – that we have connections to these people who invent that are much more humble than the ones that are projected to us by the mythology. If you want to innovate, you want to make those connections.

Getting back to our story. Let’s take a more positive spin, let’s assume that our story is going to work out. We’re working on a project together, we make some prototypes, have some success, it becomes a movement, there are people behind us, something is happening, they start talking about something is happening. And then it happens. We have this breakthrough that is very visible, and all of a sudden we solve a problem that’s never been solved before, and more people are now using this thing and they’re implementing it, and now it’s successful. It’s whatever we hoped it would achieve. It has been achieved.

And something very strange happens. If you look at the history, which I’ve done, of an invention, and the way people talked about the invention before the breakthrough moment, and in the way they talk about it after, it’s entirely different. In the beginning of the story, our story was a story of uncertainty, we were a bunch of wacko people doing stuff that’s off the map. ‘What are they doing? They’re crazy. They’re wasting their time.’ Once it happens, now it gets mythologised, and journalists start asking ‘What was the breakthrough moment? Were you in the bathtub? Did you get hit by an apple? Where were you when you first thought of…’ Now it becomes a story that they want to tell, because it’s not their fault necessarily – those are the stories that most people want to hear, the magical moments.

So if you look at history, look at history from a designer’s point of view. Let’s say we were trying to design a way to tell history. A timeline is a very compressed, effective way to convey a lot of information all at once. So most of history – at least the way it’s taught in America – most of history is a series of timelines that you’re expected to memorise, or to understand the trajectory: How did A happen? That led to B, that led to C, that led to D.

That’s useful if you’re going for volume. If you are studying for a high-​​school history exam, it’s usually what you want to do, you want to get as much understanding of the broad landscape as possible. But this tells you very little about the individual story. It makes it all seem very certain and preordained. It makes it seem like one day Alexander Graham Bell woke up, and he just went ‘Oh, it’s time for me to be famous. 1876! Got to go do the “famous” thing. I’ll fill out the patent and I’ll be famous and I’m done.’

That’s all this tells us. The moment in time happened, followed by another moment in time. It’s useful if you’re looking to memorise the whole context, but not very useful if you’re looking to try to be someone who ends up in this timeline. The timeline is not a useful way to understand how to get on the timeline.

The same thing for these kinds of history diagrams; this is more like a graphical timeline, you’re trying to understand how are these things connected together, and instead of being linear, we’re now going to be graphical, and show how these things are interdependent.

This is actually something my publisher put together; it’s the history of programming languages. As a designer, it’s a pretty impressive piece of work, to put all this together and comprehend it all, to show it visually in a way that other people can comprehend – a very difficult thing to do. However, the effect of this is very similar to that effect of this, in that it makes it seem like it is all preordained, because this view, really if you think about it, this is like the view of God. This is like ‘I see everything, and I can see how to put things together.’ And no one who ended up on this diagram actually had the benefit of this diagram to help them figure out how to get on it. They were just working at a problem, like I said before; they were trying to solve a problem.

So one of the failings of this diagram [is] if you spend too much time trying to think of history from this perspective, it allows you to make certain unfair assumptions. So Object Pascal – anybody here ever programmed an Object Pascal? This allows us to believe that the guy who sat down and designed Object Pascal, when he sat down, he was just thinking ‘You know, I’m only going to be an inch and a half on this diagram – that’s it. That’s my future, Object Pascal. I’m going to sit down and I know from the beginning that’s all it’s ever going to be.’ Somehow it was predicted, he knew he was going to fail in that way, because this is what the diagram said, didn’t he have access to the diagram, didn’t he know?

And somehow it also assumes the people made Pascal, which went on for a very long period of time, that somehow they knew, somehow there was some secret that, if you were there in that moment, you could have predicted this outcome. Which is unfair. It’s untrue. There is no one who has that kind of predictive ability, no matter how many labels they put against your name – futurist; innovation officer; some companies have chief innovation officers. Are there any chief innovation officers here? Not any more, OK, sorry. I guess you won’t be hiring me to do anything for you. OK.

So anyway, the golden story here is that these are the common models by which history is taught, the history of everything, including history of innovation. And they are pretty useless when it comes to trying to figure out how do you work in a way so something you do will be good enough to make it on the diagram of the future. I’ve got about 10 minutes to talk about people like it when you innovate, and if there’s time left we’ll do a little Q&A.

People like it when you innovate. This is a famous photo from tech history. Has anybody heard the term Luddite? Most of you? Good. So the short version of the Luddite story is as follows. This is industrial-​​age England, and people in this town in northern England, they were working at a textile factory. This is how they made a living, this is how they fed their families, this is how they fed their children, so they did everything. They went to the factory, they made textiles. The industrial age, they’re trying to figure out how to automate, how do we use steam power to make these things more effective. They’re figuring out how to make an industrial loom, a mechanical loom that can work much faster than humans could.

So one day the company puts these looms into place, fires all the textile workers, and then the textile workers were not happy about this. Textile workers showed up at work one day and they said ‘Wow, we just lost our jobs. I don’t know how I’m going to feed my kids. I don’t know how I’m going to feed my family. I have no other way to make a living. This is my livelihood,’ and they were pissed. So some of them took a sledgehammer and they took an axe, they went to the looms and they destroyed them.

And for a short period of time there was a group of these people that went around to different factories, and they had a guerrilla anti-​​industrial movement. They were eventually sentenced, many of them were killed, and the movement ended. But for technologists, the world Luddite is a slur – to call someone a Luddite usually means you’re saying you’re backwards. They are not keeping up with progress, they are rejecting the future.

The point here is as follows. Most of us technologists think luddites, OK, yeah they’re weird, we’ll just ignore them. The truth is in our own way, we would all respond probably the same way the luddites did if we were put in the same situation. So all of you are at a conference today, if on Monday you went back to work, you got to your office, your cubicle, whatever, go to your chair, and on your chair is a little black box with a red blinking light with your job title on it. And your boss comes in and taps you on the shoulder, and says, ‘Hey, sorry, gotta go. You don’t need to be here anymore. This is replacing you, sorry.’ I’m sure many of use would have a violent response to that box. We would.

And this is very important, this is probably the most important thing, the most overlooked thing about innovation, is that innovation, the successful innovation has everything to do with human nature. Human nature is way more a factor in which things will succeed or not than the technology is. So any time you innovate, the reason why I mention this luddite thing and the black-​​box thing, any time you innovate, there will always be someone, guaranteed, someone will feel that way about your new idea – they’ll feel threatened by it, they’ll feel like it’s going to make them less valuable, they’ll be afraid of the change involved in your new idea, and that’s probably the larger thing you have to overcome is their emotional response to change. That’s probably a bigger challenge than the technological challenges that you have to overcome to make something.

The other example to make this point from a different perspective. History of warfare technology. So it turns out that the West did not invent gunpowder, that was invented by the Eastern countries, China and Korea, several hundred years before the first Spaniard made a rifle. And the truth of the story is they discovered gunpowder, they recognised its potential for warfare, but their cultural values led them to decide that it wasn’t the right choice for them.

In Japan they believed in sword warfare, that there was a code for how you killed someone, believe it or not, that was honourable. There was an honourable way to die, an honourable way to fight, and that involved your mastery of a skill, your mastery of a sword. And if you were going to die at the hand of someone else’s sword, that was okay, in a way, because you were dying honourably. They saw this gunpowder stuff, they recognised how easy it would be to create a bomb or a projectile weapon, and it required no skill. They thought it was dishonourable. None of the warlords – as much as they were fighting each other, none of the warlords were willing to give up their cultural values in favour of the technological advantage, so they ignored it.

Some people say that has everything to do with why in the 1600s and 1700s, Western countries were able to come into the east and dominate them, because they had the technological advantage. Fine, that’s not the point. The point is that every culture has some bias about certain kinds of technology, there is some bias that you have that makes you more prone to accept one kind of technology, and less prone to accept another, based on your personal values. And as an inventor, or an innovator or creator, as someone who makes new things, part of what you have to figure out for your client or for your customer, or for your country, whoever you’re innovating for, is how the thing you’re making is going to play on those cultural values. If you can’t figure that out, then you’re basically innovating blind. You’re making something new and you are hoping it’s going to fit into the culture that you’re designing it for.

I can guarantee you that an anthropologist will look at Twitter, if they aren’t already, in five to ten years now, and ask the question: Why are there certain profiles of people that really like this thing, and other certain profiles that really think it’s stupid? Why? What’s the value system that’s different? I’m sure there’s probably someone who is Twittering here now saying ‘Scott’s a jerk for picking on Twitter,’ or something – who knows?

This theory is not mine, this is the anthropological view of innovation, which is very powerful, because most technologists don’t know anything about it. But the basic idea is that the fusion, the spread of innovation, has much more to do with social processes than it does to do with technological processes. If you’re a designer, or a usability engineer, or an ethnographer, you should be really happy, because this supports that work that you are doing, it says you have to understand the customer, you have to understand who you are making the thing for, because that will determine how to make something for them that they’ll actually use, based on your understanding of them, not your understanding of the technology.

But his view on this is very interesting, because he is purely an anthropologist, not a technologist. Doesn’t know how to write CSS, doesn’t know anything about that. He just spent all of his time going to different cultures and asking the question ‘Why did this technology get adopted by this tribe, but not that tribe?’ And the book is about interesting stories that he found when he did that research.

My last story for you is much more corporate and much more to do with how to innovate in the workplace. If you ask me to distill down everything that I learned from all the research that I did in this book about how innovation happens in more of a work environment, it’s these three things. Is there delegation of work? Is there risk-​​taking and mistake-​​making? And is there reward for initiatives? Those are the three.

And I give you a story that illustrates these three points. How many of you know the company 3M? Everybody. Can anyone here name a product that you’ve used? Post-​​it Notes. Does anyone know what 3M stands for? Minnesota Mining Manufacturing, so they have Luddites at 3M I guess. So we’ve got Post-​​it Notes and mining and manufacturing. One of these things is not like the other; these things don’t relate that much. 3M started as an entrepreneurial concern. It was late industrial-​​age America – 1880, 1890 somewhere in there – and the big deal at the time was actually stuff to support industry. This is when skyscrapers were being built, the industry was huge, so the hot tech sector, believe it or not, was industrial-​​age material.

And they decided they were going to get into the mining business, they were going to mine materials that would be used to abrase metal, to sharpen or refine metal. And they built this mine – they made a startup company, they took out a big loan, and they made a mine. They started mining, and they very quickly realised they made a big mistake, because they were mining the wrong minerals. They were mining the effective equivalent of fool’s gold. It was like fool’s abrasion material. And they realised they screwed up, and they [thought] ‘What are we going to do? Let’s try this again. We’re going to be more focussed this time.’

They got more money together, they borrowed more money, and the second time they made the startup and they focussed on what was effectively sandpaper – minerals you need to make sandpaper. They made their second mine and they started mining the stuff, and it took them several years, about 10 years, to eventually have a functionally profitable business. It was not an overnight success, but they were making sandpaper, that’s what they did. Again, at the time that was cool – if you went to a bar and someone asked you what you did, and you said ‘I’m a sandpaper engineer,’ they’d go ‘Oh, OK – that means you have, like, stock options, right? Yeah, OK.’

So we have this guy, we have this company, there’s an engineer at this sandpaper company, and one of his clients is some kind of automobile manufacturing plant, and he goes to their lab to show them some prototypes of sandpaper. And he notices they have a problem. They’re trying to paint this tractor or this car, this tractor in two colours, grey and blue. And they need a reliable way to separate these things from each other so they could paint them in an assembly-​​line type of fashion, and they don’t know how to do that. So he looks at it and says ‘I think I could solve that.’

So he went back to his lab at 3M and starts working on this problem: How do you separate two different things? He gets a prototype together, a very rough prototype, and shows it to his boss. His boss looks at it and goes, ‘What are you doing, we’re 3M, Minnesota Mining Manufacture, not painting, not two colours. So get back to sandpaper.’ He spent some more time working on sandpaper, but this idea is in his head, and he can’t get it out of his head.

So he spends more of his own time working on a prototype, makes a better prototype, sends to his boss, and his boss says no. The same thing happens again a third time, fourth time. Finally, the boss says, ‘Look, if you’re going to keep doing this, you can’t work here anymore. Get back to work on the sandpaper.’ So this guy, his name was Richard Drew, he says ‘I don’t care. This idea in my head is more important than anything else. I am going to do it anyway.’

And he figures out that he as an engineer, he has the ability to write receipts to himself for a certain amount – $50 or something. He needs like $1,000 to finish the prototype, so he just writes those receipts to himself to finish the prototype. He finishes the prototype, shows it to his boss, shows it to the automotive company, and they all like it. And this is the birth of masking tape. This is 1925 or 1924. That was how masking tape was invented.

And everyone liked it, so they were willing to make it into a product, because they thought it would be an industrial product. They took the product to this automobile company, and they started using it. But soon they realised that there was all these applications they had never thought of ever before. And the profit line for masking tape quickly accelerated beyond the profit line for all their sandpaper products. So that’s a short version of the story. So it quickly rises faster than the sandpaper products. The boss goes ‘Wow.’ The boss’s name was William McKnight. The boss goes, ‘Wow, I wanted to kill this product. I wanted to kill it four times, and finally I let it happen only because this guy had persisted. What have I done wrong? I’m the manager. I don’t want to make this mistake again. I want to be an enabler of innovation. I want to be an enabler of new products. What can I do as the manager, the boss, to make it easier for Richard Drew to repeat this, or someone else to do the same thing?’

So William McKnight set upon – he eventually became the chairman of the company – he set upon building this philosophy for the company, trying to support innovation. And that was what led to the environment that made the Post-​​it Note powerful. So that’s how you get from mining to Post-​​it Notes – a manager or a boss or an individual who had some power, decided they were going to make their job about supporting innovation rather than thwarting it.

So the last thing I’m going to talk to you about is I’m going to break a presentation rule, and I’m going to read to you three paragraphs. They are very short paragraphs, three paragraphs from William McKnight’s philosophy on how innovation happens, how to manage innovation, I’m going to read it and then I’m going to call out a couple of key things.

‘As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way. Mistakes will be made, but if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs. Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative, and it is essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.’

That’s not bad. Three paragraphs. It took me maybe 45 seconds to say that, and I’ve sat through – I worked at Microsoft for a long time, I sat through many executive speeches about innovation, that went on for an hour, 1.5 hours that were much worse than those three paragraphs, and I bet most of you have too. That’s part of my point, is there’s a couple of key elements in here that are very simple to understand but difficult to do. And that’s really the leverage point of how innovation happens.

The first one in here is about delegating responsibility, to say OK, I’m the manager, but you’re the individual; your perspective on this is probably more flexible than mine. I have to empower you to some degree to be creative. I have to – I have to delegate it away.

The second, mistakes will be made. Mistakes will be made. It doesn’t say how to respond to mistakes or how to avoid mistakes, he’s saying mistakes will be made, period, end of sentence. And if we are being creative, we are guaranteed we must make mistakes, because we’re going on a part of the map that we don’t know what’s there. So this is the CEO of the company said we’re going to make mistakes.

Now I’ve read a lot of business plans and vision documents. I’ve never seen one that said ‘20% of our budget will be spent making mistakes.’ I have never seen that. But that’s effectively what he’s saying here as the chairman, that anyone who is leading a project has to say, ‘Where are we going to find time to make mistakes? Where are we going to make the wacko, crazy prototypes that we’re never going to ship, make them crazy on purpose so we’ll learn something? And if we’re claiming to be an innovative project, we have to match that with this budget about mistake-​​making? It can’t happen. We’re not going to innovate. This won’t happen.’

The third thing is about initiative, rewarding initiative. And people like Richard Drew, who take a risk, for stepping outside of the box to do something that they’re told not to do, they want to find a way to reward that kind of initiative. Most managers are very critical of that kind of initiative. ‘How could you disregard my authority’ blah blah. He’s saying no. You have to find a way to manage this so you go the other way. You don’t want to end up with chaos, but you have to find a way.

So one comment – popular thing that comes up a lot when you talk about innovation today is Google, and Google’s 20% rule. How many people have heard of this 20% rule? The 20% rule basically says that if you’re a Google employee, 20% of your time is at your own discretion – 20% of the time, if you believe that they work Monday to Friday, that means one day a week is your time. You can do whatever you want, you can make a project, develop something, hack something, and the idea is every so often those little hack projects, you’ll propose them as being mainstream projects in the company. But that idea does not come from Google. That was 3M’s idea. They called it something else, the 5% rule, the 10% rule. Basically that was a way for McKnight to say ‘I am delegating authority to you as an individual; I am finding you an afternoon a week, a couple of hours a month, some amount of time where you are in charge of innovating. It’s up to you to do it. I’m not going to tell you how to do it, because I can’t, but you are in charge. Any wacko idea you want to try, you now have three hours a month or a week to do it.’

The last thing I’ll say before I open for questioning, the power of history is a really important theme for me, because this essay, this speech, is almost 60 years old. This is super-​​old by our standards.

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4 responses to “Scott Berkun — The myths of innovation”:

  1. […] we trialled Smart Docs with one of our most popular sessions from last year — Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation. They got an accurate transcription back to me with a 24 hour turnaround, which I’ve since […]

    • By: Sveta
    • October 21st, 2008

    The presentation is fantastic, I enjoyed reading it very much! Thanks for the transcription!

  2. […] South 2007.Check it out for your­self — after the con­fer­ence we pub­lished the slides, pod­cast, and even a tran­script at our resources site. It really is a great read or listen.The really great news is that three […]

  3. […] version of Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation. I was privileged to see Berkun deliver his conference presentation of the same name at Web Directions South 2007, and I mentioned it as one of the WDS highlights that […]

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