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Book Review: The Myths of Innovation

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In: Reviews > Book Reviews

By Tiff Fehr

Published on June 11, 2007

Web professionals are well aware that we live in an age marked by an ever-increasing rate of innovation and change. Within the tech industry, we witness the endless buzz about the newest technological innovation of the week. Outside the tech industry, business publications trip over each other to cover the next innovative gadget, business model, leader, or workspace. With such wide-ranging use of the word innovation, how does it relate to a web professional’s day-to-day work, and how do we sift through the buzz to find the secrets of authentic innovation?

Currently, the word innovation is about as muddied in the business world as intuitive or Web 2.0. In an effort to reclaim the rich and valuable ideas behind the word, author and consultant Scott Berkun exposes our misconceptions about innovation, and clearly shows us how to realign our expectations and assumptions about the concept.

Who is the book for?

Ever been asked (or told) to brainstorm? Then The Myths of Innovation is for you. Try to find a web professional who hasn’t been led into a conference room and told to think up the next great web innovation. Despite these lofty goals, most business efforts at innovation are conceptually flawed. So, too, are our collective notions about the definitions of innovation and invention.

If generating new ideas is part of your job, The Myths of Innovation is a solid touchstone for keeping yourself, your projects, and business culture attuned to encourage genuine innovation.

What will I learn?

At 147 pages across ten clear chapters, the book is a crisp, easy read. Berkun’s introduction asserts that his intent is for The Myths of Innovation to be a reference you can read out-of-order and in fragments. Yet within these pages, you’ll find an extensively researched set of perspectives about innovation, building up to a strong lesson in redefining innovation—all with a sense of humor, too.

The history of innovation bears concrete lessons for us: the resistance to innovative thinking, the conflicts that historical innovations faced as they took shape, and how innovators overcame all kinds of obstacles (even if, at times, it was due to dumb luck).

So why does Berkun think innovation is rife with myths? Most people could benefit from adding dimension and nuance to their understanding of innovation, to be sure. But is it really a big change from how we currently think of it and how we often aimlessly pursue it?

As Berkun tells it in the early chapters, the idea of innovation as an epiphany has little connection to historical truth. Yet, we romanticize it into a hero myth of the lone inventor, saving humanity one mousetrap at a time. In reality, innovation is as evolutionary and whimsical as any other force driven by human passion.

We have deep flaws in our collective memory of innovation and invention. Ask anyone to give an example of innovation and you’ll typically hear the same examples—the Gutenberg press, the lightbulb, the automobile, the television, the computer. Berkun’s point is that both memory and history rarely acknowledge the gradual breakthroughs and back-story that support those innovations. Acknowledging the rich, intricate paths behind innovations is a good start to correcting the myths.

In the latter chapters, Berkun builds concrete steps to encourage real innovation. Strategies that foster innovation have echoes in the modern workplace—brainstorming, for instance—but they need to be brought back to their clear, conceptual roots. The unglamorous truth about innovation is that it is hard work. Elbow grease has been, and will always be, the real back-story of innovation.

The internet adds its own twist to the popular image of inventors laboring away in a garage. Berkun identifies the real story as innovation by curious path or teasing innovation out of gradual, iterative experimentation. Those of us in web professions might associate this with recent shifts toward iterative development and the buzz generated by releasing user-responsive beta projects (Flickr is a strong example), but Berkun champions innovation by curious path as an effective way to revive a culture of innovation.

Should I buy it?

Rife with examples from both the internet age and history (but far from dull), The Myths of Innovation shows that a work culture that supports innovation is achievable, if you’re cognizant of what is myth and what is truth. He provides really on-target tips for refining how teams should approach projects that are aiming for something new, something better. You’ll find a much richer appreciation of the concept of innovation, and the sort of eye-opening, inspiring understanding that will help you to persevere.

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Related Topics: Business, History of Technology, Planning, Technology

 

Tiff Fehr is a user experience engineerette, specializing in design & front-end development. She lives in Seattle and works for msnbc.com. Tiff can be found tinkering away on tiffehr.com, amongst other side projects. She truly digs working for Digital Web Magazine, and adores her colleagues.

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