While travelling around the globe in support of the MEDC 2007 World Tour, I read "The Myths of Innovation" written by Scott Berkun and published by O'Reilly Media.  As a marketer, software developer and entrepreneur, this kind of book is right up my alley.  Berkun takes the reader on a tour of the history of innovation to show how ideas can become successful innovations.  Of course, one take away I had from the book was that innovation doesn't always come quickly and sometimes it isn't recognized for decades after it happens.  In some extreme cases, an innovation literally dies on the vine for hundreds of years after the death of the innovator before seeing the light of day. 

 

Berkun breaks out 8 challenges that innovators face in trying to turn their ideas into a success:

  1. Find an idea (concentrated thinking, brainstorming, observations, daydreaming, etc.)
  2. Develop a solution (turn an idea into a working prototype)
  3. Sponsorship or Funding (how will you fund the project)
  4. Reproduction (can you scale to cheaply manufacture 50,000 of your widgets in order to turn a profit)
  5. Reach your potential customer (an idea isn't an innovation until it reaches people)
  6. Beat your competitors (others are working on the same idea at the same time as you)
  7. Timing (is it too soon, too revolutionary to get people to switch from something similar)
  8. Keep the lights on (the bills keep coming while you're trying to innovate)

It's likely that many great ideas from the past failed to knock all 8 of the above challenges out of the park thus causing them to never become innovations.  Berkun also does a quick run-through where people will tell you your idea is crazy, will never work, won't be wanted by consumers, or is just a solution in search of a problem.  I'm sure many of my fellow startup-junkies have heard all these things and more when trying to raise money from Angel investors or Venture Capitalists.

One other aspect of the book I really liked centered around how innovators often conflict with their managers.  Fresh out of school MBAs want to try out the latest management theory that optimizes and measures performance, reduces defects, and eliminates inefficiencies.  Berkun refers to Steve Jobs being asked "How do you systematize innovation?"  Jobs retorted, "You don't."  You don't have to look any futher than the recent BusinessWeek cover story on how Six Sigma almost sucked the innovative life out of 3M.  Berkun says that managers responsible for innovative teams must do the following:

  1. Invest time and money to nurture young ideas and support their development and delivery
  2. Be an enabler of other's ideas
  3. Create an environment that encourages the free discourse of ideas including open criticism and debate
  4. Hire people who thrive in an ambiguous environment filled with the uncertainty of doing new things
  5. Provide cover fire to shield a team's innovations while they're too young to defend themselves in the open
  6. Provide execution to take an idea from conception to realization.  "Real artists ship!" - Jobs
  7. Be skilled in the art of persuasion to pitch ideas, raise funds, recruit top talent, and sell the completed product
  8. Be equiped with the perserverance to keep pressing forward when hundreds of doors are slammed in your face

The last small pearl that caught my attention was Berkun's assertion that the goodness and value that an innovation has must be balanced with ease of adoption.  Why else would the simple combination of HTML + JavaScript be more prevalant throughout the world than sophisticated programming languages like Java and C#?  We all need to keep that in mind when we come up with revolutionary ideas that are also highly complex.

"The Myths of Innovation" rang true with many of my past startup experiences while bestowing some new insights that I hadn't though of.  It's definitely well worth the read and I highly recommend it.

Rob