Book Review – Myths of Innovation

February 12, 2011

Book cover of The Myths of InnovationThis new book from O’Reilly Media appears to be yet another book that attempts to cover the topic of innovation but does a better job than most of defining the myths and truths of  innovation historically. The author proposes that eureka moments don’t happen, and rather “there is a period of incubation in which the knowledge is digested, leading to experiments and rough attempts at solutions.” And “Nearly every major innovation of the 20th century took place without claims of epiphany.”

In discussing the history of innovation, he notes that examples like Gutenberg whose influence was not felt until after his death. The history of innovation was not straight line of successes but rather as many failures and setbacks and often governed by political and social circumstances. He notes when you really dissect the evolution of innovations that “invention and adoption is based on ordinary, selfish, and mostly short-term motivations.”

If there is a formula for innovation, it includes hard work and persistence, curiosity, the desire for wealth, and necessity. So proceeding in innovation requires: finding an idea, developing a solution, sponsorship and funding, scaling, reaching customers, beating competitors, timing, keeping the lights on. At the same time, he notes, there can be infinite paths to innovation as recent history has shown whether looking at Flickr, 3M or Craig’s List. He also destroys the myth of the lone inventor.

The books also deals with barriers to innovation, the main one’s being negative responses like “this will never work” and the fact that managers tend to stifle innovation. “Ideas need nurturing and are grown, not manufactured, which suggests that idea shortages are self-inflicted. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that ideas will always be easier to find if they’re not shot down on sight.” Managers can be toxic to new ideas. “high experience and confidence make people the greatest resisters to new ideas as they have the most to lose.” Maybe this is why some innovators leave large organizations and start their own companies. The good news is that managers can nurture innovation by protecting and shepherding them. Framing ideas can help solve them – especially when thinking through how the innovation will solve a practical need.

The book concludes by trying to get beyond the hype of which there is more today than any time in history. Innovators of the past did not read books about innovation or attend TED conferences, although some may have been inspired by other innovators in history. Innovations requires the willingness to take risks, working with teams, get beyond the obsession with epiphany, and get beyond the work innovation.

In conclusion, he gives five suggestions:

  1. Pick a project and start doing something
  2. Forget innovation: focus on being good
  3. If you work with others, you need leadership and trust
  4. If you work with others and things are not going well, make the team smaller
  5. Be happy about interesting “mistakes.”

The book also has suggestions for creative thinking hacks.

Overall, the book not only debunks many myths about innovation but also provides practical advice. For me the chapter on how managers can either inhibit or promote innovation. This is where innovation either grows or dies. For healthcare, the opportunities for innovation are everywhere in the care process if they are not blocked by managers or oppressive policies and oversight. The book does not address adequately the use of internet tools in promoting innovative ideas. These include Twitter, blogs,

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