Scott Berkun’s lecture on the "Myths of Innovation"

Process of Innovation
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Scott Berkun gave a lecture on the Myths of Innovation, at Carnegie Mellon University. These are my notes from that lecture.

Lecture on the Myths of Innovation

(link to presentation on YouTube)

Scott worked at Microsoft for about 10 years. He had a Team Leader role and worked on Internet Explorer for about 6 years. His job was to lead a project team to think up new ideas to make using the internet easier. He would work with designers and engineers, and lead the team to develop the ideas, and put the ideas into a specification and getting it out the door.

The problem – he didn’t know the answer to the questions: “how do you innovate? “, “how do you manage a team that’s supposed to be innovating, and creating new stuff?”

Scott knew a lot of people at MS, many who had been there longer than he was, many “inventors” – people who had worked on Mac, and UNIX. He tried to get information about what the process is, what the plan is, how do you do this. What most people knew where pet theories. There were stories, legends, mythologies, and a lot of people, even though they had a lot of experience and had been successful, put their faith in something that didn’t have a lot of substance. He decided that he had to become informed about this. To find out how people who had done this before him had done it. Not what we think that they did, not what is mythologized in films, but actually what they did.

He started reading about reading about Edison, da Vinci, Ford. He wanted to understand “how did they think about what they did”. This was as a “side project”. He was never interested in history.

Scott left MS in 2003. He was ambition to write books. His first book was about management.”How do you manage teams of people?” The book sold well, and he was asked to write a second book. His second book was about innovation. So many books on innovation are based on hype, and mythology and romance. And this is not so handy if you want to be a practitioner.

A lot of people want to be innovator’s (especially in America). The lecture is not the same as what is in the book, but the themes are the same.


Famous Innovators

Scott started with some information trivia, and showed some pictures of famous innovators:

  • Bob Dylan
  • Micheal Angelo
  • Edison
  • Van Gogh
  • Newton
  • Einstein

Myths of Innovation - Famous Innovators

The common thing about these people is that none of them got a degree in innovation, or read a book about how innovation happens or took a creative thinking class. None of the things that, today, are promoted as “that’s how you do it”. They just had an idea which they thought was interesting, and they cared about, and they followed it. Sometimes at the expense of their mental health, or finance (Edison)

Innovation is not reached by a specific type of people, of a particular pedigree, following a set of rules . It is usually the renegades and delinquents who are innovators. The people who say that they are not going to follow what everyone else is doing.

There is no official pedigree needed to be an innovator. However, we like to believe there is. There  is a romantic and popular notion that creativity is something that gifted people are born with One particular part of that mythology is the myth of epiphany. That is – there are “magic moments” that define what innovation is.


Innovation mythology – The Myth of Epiphany

Myths of Innovation - Newton's EpiphanyNewton – the “canonical epiphany story” – because it implies that there is one particular, “special” moment when an individual accidentally was struck “violently” by a piece of fruit and that’s why we know about gravity.

People tend not to think about the mythology, and, when we’re not paying attention, it influences what we believe should be happening – when we are working hard trying to solve a problem, there’s no magic moment, no epiphany, so we feel we are not doing it right.

With the apple story and Newton it probably didn’t happen, but if it did happen, the true value of the story is not that it happened, because he had probably been thinking about gravity for a long time. He didn’t “discover” gravity. He was alive in the late 17th century. We knew about gravity for a long time before that. What he was actually famous for was proving the mathematics of gravity, to be predictive about how gravitational fields worked. It took him about 15 years to do that. However, the myth remains. And the epiphany mythologies absolve us of the pressure of the work involved behind any breakthrough or innovation that we have heard of.

Myths of Innovation - Archimedes' epiphanyArchimedes is credited with having an epiphany while he was in the bath. The fact that he was “in the bath” is what most people remember. However, it is a comical story that makes the whole idea of innovation seem trivial.

These epiphany stories can be found everywhere – business success, literature success, everywhere. This is because they are comfortable, entertaining, and amusing, but they deflate all the hard work behind the success.

In Archimedes’ case, it is most likely that the “reported” moment was not the only time he spent thinking about the problem.


Creative Thinking

A big part of innovation is “creative thinking”. How do you invent? How do you develop a new idea? How do you find alternative ways that people haven’t thought of before?

In preparation for the book, Scott became a student of psychologogy-literature, of creative thinking. He read journals and books, and there is a popular notion about creativity, which is reflected in all these epiphany stories and that is, that an idea is a discrete thing. That it happens in a moment of time. This is how we conventionally think creative thinking is.

All the psychology behind creative thinking, and how our brains work, and how we develop ideas, talks about the value of “habits”. Creative people have different habits for how they use ideas, and how they play with ideas, and how much time is spent seeking alternatives. They are more comfortable entertaining odd, crazy, scary ideas longer than most people who dismiss them quickly).

So – it’s about habits, and when you hear about a story of an epiphany, or a magic moment, the magic moment isn’t going to tell you anything. It’s what happened 10 minutes,  or an hour, before that magic moment that’s important. What was that person doing?


Magic Moment

How does this magic moment fit into the person’s pattern of behaviour. If you can learn the patterns of behaviour then there is something that you can replicate, or emulate, or borrow from to inform you about what process you have to follow to be creative. The “moments” are not important, it’s the habits that lead to the moments.

It’s like an iceberg…


Myths of Innovation - Innovation Iceberg

Another example is the invention of the telephone. The “story” goes that the first words spoken were “Watson, come here”. If you were to invent a replacement to the telephone, what value would knowing “the first words spoken” have? It is useless information. What we mostly know about creative thinking is trivia. It’s interesting, but not going to help you be creative.

There is also the mythology in science. Often a lot of the way we learn science is following the footsteps of others, and what has been done before. So even though the words “experiment”, and “scientific method” show up in scientific education, is it very rare for people to do an experiment themselves, or ask a question and don’t have clear answers. So even though we talk about science, and “scientific method” we have a very biassed sense of what that means. When talking about breakthroughs in science, the patterns that we follow are more comfortable to human nature than we realise.

Scott refers to the book “The Double Helix” which he read to understand what creative process was used. Did they follow the same iterative process that he had for software? Did they have hypotheses, and explored outcomes.

The book actually has very little about science in it. It is largely about a bunch of people who had an idea, about something that most people didn’t agree was possible. The people involved were, effectively, pursuing hunches and instinctive motivation. Even though backed up by science the motivating force was purely human. It was an intuitive and ad-hoc process. Anytime we talk about discovery, or break through, this is true.



Failure is also a part of break-through. Failures are essential. Often we do not see the failures.

For example, the Colosseum in Rome. We marvel at what a great building it is, and how advanced the architects and builders must have been.

What we don’t see are all the other buildings that are not standing today. The one’s that failed. This is common in the history of innovation. We never see the failures. So if you want to follow someone’s path to success, their innovation, you want to look at their failures . What mistake did they make, that they learnt something from, and was able to apply to something else.

This can be found everywhere. YouTube is an example. Originally the company was trying to create a video alternative to “Hot or Not”, a online dating site where photos could be posted and then people could vote whether the person in the photo was “hot” or “not”. In the course of building the “alternative” they recognized that there was better use for it in a more general direction.

Flickr started out as a software game development company for an online, multiplayer game. After about a year they ran out of funding, but they were able to recognize that part of the thing they were building was a part where there was the ability to share photos. They realized that this little part had actually more chance of being successful than the game itself. They made a mistake, they learnt from it, and they went in a different direction.

Apple also had a similar story. Way back at the beginning, Steve Wozinack worked at HP, and he tried to get HP interested in making a personal computer. HP didn’t want to so Steve W. and Steve Jobs went off and did it their way.

Same with Google. In the beginning when the founders had a  they were looking at selling their ideas to a search engine company. They were told by every search engine company that search engines weren’t very profitable. In 1999 this was true. They were told by Yahoo, and some other search engine companies, that they should really go out on their own if they want the idea to materialize.

Also of interest:
Google, 1997, Pagerank & Barrels

So, the real value is looking at the mistakes to understand the process of innovation.

However, stories about failures are very rare.

If you hear about a company that has just had a breakthrough, or a magic moment, and you want to be an innovator yourself, you need to ask yourselves some questions:

Lessons Learned so far

  • What happened before the magic?
  • What mistakes did they learn from?
  • What ideas did they reuse?
  • What did they think of what they were making while they were making it?

Myths of Innovation - The Magic Moment


Scott gives an example. “Imagine,” he says “that you are working together on a project. The goal is to innovate – to create Web 4.0.”

“We start with a prototype – we build some code. It goes so well, that some people who thought you were crazy to start with, start showing interest, and want to know more, and get involved. The project starts to grow, and we get more support behind it. Interest starts growing even more, and there are blog posts about it, and articles are written in magazines about how this is the next new thing.”

What generally happens next is … nothing.

Scott goes on to talk about exploration. Exploration has many similarities to innovation.

He shows a photo of Captain James Kirk from Star Trek. He points out that James T Kirk is the only modern day icon for exploration that we have today .

Myths of Innovation - James T Kirk

Most of the planet has been “discovered”, and the main story that gets told these days, over and over, in the movies, on TV, involving exploration is that of Captain James T Kirk.

The problem with this, of course, is that Captain James T Kirk is not a real person. He’s just a character in a TV show.

Looking at real explorers – Magellan, Cook, da Gama – they all spent most of their time failing. They started with a map with outlined “the world”, and then went “off the map”. And during this time, there were many unpleasant things that happened – mutinies, scurvy, etc – as well as lots, and lots of uninteresting stuff. The main point is that most of exploration is taken up with uninteresting hard work. This is the parallel with innovation. All the hard work is not as sexy as the point where the flag is put in the ground, or that “Eureka” moment.

The problem with James T Kirk is that, normally, within the first minute of the show, a new planet is discovered., in the next couple of minutes something dramatic happens. And then a commercial break. All the hard bits that make up exploration are skipped. The Teleporter, transporter, warp drive – these are all narrative devices to get you past the hard work parts of exploration.

Looking at real explorers, Magellan was famous for circumnavigating the globe. But there is actually many, many events that took place during this that people are not aware of.

According to Berkun, Cook was actually the model for James T Kirk, and the reason that the “red coat” is always the one that dies, is because the British marines wore red coats and they were always the ones sent in first and died.

Berkun brings the talk back to the fact that the time between when something (technology, etc) is thought to be “interesting” by the people working on it, and when it is considered a “breakthrough” by the mass market is often 15-20 years. Example – the mouse, the cell phone

This means, in our example project above, once success is achieved, it now has to fit into the “narrative” of innovations. That is it becomes the latest of a long line of other innovative achievements that led up to it.

The “details” about the pain, or mistakes, or the boring bits, doesn’t get recorded. This makes it seem ordinary, simple and obvious despite how complicated or risky it was to do.

O’Reilly Publishers created a diagram that describes the history of programming languages and how they are all related to each other ( It is an excellent way to get an overview of the languages, and allows you to get some perspective.

However, there is no language listed that was invented through using the diagram. It is not a tool used to invent. It gives a “god” perspective. It is easy to look at the diagram, at Object Pascal for example, and pass judgment. This is the risk of the chronological accounts of innovation.

Myths of Innovation - O'Reilly's Language posterClick on the image to read more

Lessons Learned so far

  • Good history = fact-based stories, not trivia.
  • Seek out first and second person.
  • Study the origins of an ordinary thing.
  • Everything was once an innovation.


Myths of Innovation - Luddites


Berkun then starts talking about Luddites.

He tells that how in the circles he was working, the term Luddite was a slur, meaning that you are trying to resist something (new technology) that is going to become inevitable.  Of course, the real story is that during the Industrial Revolution in England, people who worked in the textile industry operating the looms were replaced by technology that did the same. The workers (supposedly lead by “Ned Ludd”) responded by destroying the technology with sledge hammers

He then asks his audience to imagine coming to work to find they have been replaced by a small box, and to be told that all other employees have had the same done to them. He suggests that people would have a violent response to the box, an emotional response and an awareness of how much the box would be taking away from their lives.

The lesson here is about innovation, because innovation is effectively a kind of change. It may be a positive change, but, in general, people fear change. And as an innovator, you are introducing change somewhere – your workplace, your work colleagues, your family, your customers. As an innovator, if you are not aware of the change, or the ramifications of the change, then the innovation is likely to fail.

For example, if you introduce a new innovation in the workplace, then maybe your co-workers will resist the change, because they didn’t think of it. Your boss might be embarrassed because he didn’t think of the idea, so he might suppress the idea. So Innovation is more about sociology than technology. This can frustrate technologists, who may have a technically superior product, but it takes a long time for it to be “accepted”.

There is a book called “Diffusion of Innovations” by Evett M. Rogers, an anthropologist, which looks at “history of technological advancement from a sociological standpoint”. Rogers focused on why certain cultures adopted certain innovations. For example – why did one culture adopt clubs, another better cooking innovations, etc. From this, he concluded that it is culture that precipitates, or enables, innovation . A quote from his book is:

The diffusion of innovation is a social process, based more on psychology and sociology than technology”.

If you want to instigate change, you have to ask “who is negatively affected by change, and how do I negotiate that?” “How do I persuade them, negotiate with them, convince them?” If you do not have answers to these questions, it may not matter how great your innovation is.



Myths of Innovation - 3M Innovative Company

Berkun finished his presentation with a story about 3M.

3M stands for “Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing”. Now, one of the best known products from 3M is the yellow Post-its. There does not seem to be much of a connection between yellow sticky notes, and the name “Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing”. It is an amazing leap to go from mining to Post-its.

Also of interest:
This well-known company did not start out doing what they are famous for...

In the early 20th century, the Industrial revolution was still big. Machinery was a product of these, and for these steel is needed. A group of entrepreneurs in Minnesota decided they were going to start a mining company so that they could make grinding wheels. They bought a mine, and started mining, but it turned out that they mined the wrong mineral. They held a meeting, and decided to go in a different direction – sandpaper. With this came a new set of mistakes, and problems, but after about 5 years they started a profitable sandpaper company.

One of their sandpaper engineers, Richard Drew, was working on a project where he had prototypes of new types of sandpaper. He went to one of his customers – an automobile manufacture – who happen to have a problem painting their cars two tones (blue and grey). They didn’t have a reliable way of separating the two colours. Drew noticed this, and said that he could probably come up with a way to solve it. He goes back to 3M and starts working on prototypes. Eventually his boss, William McNight, tells him to start concentrating on 3M’s products. Drew does this, but is still busy with a solution for this problem, and carries on working on it. Several times he is told to get back to his real work. However he carries on with the problem, and eventually comes up with a prototype which he takes to the automobile company. They love it, so drew shows it to his boss who agrees that it is OK, and that is how Masking Tape originated. Drew would go on to invent cellophane tape (“scotch tape”/ “sellotape”)

The interesting part of this story is not what Drew achieved, but more how William McNight reacted.

Sales of masking tape, and cellophane tape far exceed those of sandpaper. These new things became 3M’s most successful product lines. McNight acknowledge that he had screwed up. Originally he had wanted to stop the development of these products. He decided to change his business philosophy to encourage the Richard Drews, to encourage new ideas. So he changed the company, and the direction of the company, and eventually became CEO of 3M, and made this philosophy a core part the company philosophy.

Berkun displayed a three paragraph piece from a report McNight had written on 3M’s business philosophy:

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 that 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’s essential that we have many people with initiatives if we are to continue to grow.

– William McKnight, 3M Chairman, 1948.

Download a copy of this.

Berkun points out that this was from about years ago, and is hardly ever seen in action with other companies today.

The main things that McKnight is saying are:

  1. Delegation – trust that a employee will do the right thing.
  2. Mistakes will be made – innovation means risks, and risks mean mistakes – a commitment is needed that mistakes will be made, and allowed.
  3. Initiative –must be encouraged.

Google have a rule where employees are allowed to spend 20% of their time working on something innovative. However, 3M came up with the concept originally.

Berkun maintains that if McKnight’s philosophy is followed, then innovation will occur. And this is also on a personal level. People are “trained” to follow the rules, and not to make mistakes. If you want to be innovative, you need to find a way to allow yourself to make mistakes. To be less critical of their creative ideas, and to follow them further before trashing them.

Also – being innovative is a personal responsibility. No one is going to say “OK – now break the rules”.


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