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Web Directions: The myths of innovation

By Matthew Magain

Kicking off day two of the Web Directions conference was an inspiring talk by the charismatic Scott Berkun.

Scott described several myths that exists about innovation — including the misconception that ideas are external to us, and that epiphanies come to us when we least expect it. He gave examples of famous characters in history: Archimedes, discovering how to identify gold by measuring its density, and Newton’s famous revelation of the existence of gravity. People latch on to the story that they want to hear (e.g. Archimedes leaping naked from the bath tub and running through the street, and Newton lazing about until an apple landed on his head). The reality is that inventors and innovators spend their entire life trying to solve a problem, and the hard work that these famous characters invested is quickly forgotten.

He suggested that, in a company, the less you use the word “innovation”, the more likely you are to do it. If you’re using the word regularly, you’re in big trouble.

Innovators are essentially explorers: they pick a blank spot on a map and say “I want to go there and bring back cool stuff”. Star Trek, however, is an inaccurate representation of exploring — all the hard stuff and the boring stuff is glossed over with warp drives and teleport machines.

More interesting explorers can be found in history — Magellan, who is famous for circumnavigating the world, actually died half way. British explorer James Cook is remembered for “discovering” much of Oceania, not for dying in a disastrous expedition to Hawaii.

However the way people talk about an invention before and after are very different. Beforehand, the consensus is “these people are crazy, they’re wasting their time”. Afterwards, people look for the breakthrough moment, the magical moment, because that’s what they want to hear. DaVinci, Magellan, Cook etc all worked on things that nobody else believed in, but they persisted anyway.

Any time you innovate, someone will have an emotional response to change that your invention will bring about

  • http://www.phpied.com ssttoo

    There’s a video of his talk, well not from the same conference, but on the same subject:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6gaj6huCp0

  • Php_penguin

    wow I never knew that was how masking tape was invented…

    A very good post, certainly highlights common misconceptions about innovations, as well as methods to increase how many you have.

    Well done!

  • Breton

    “because he didn’t want to prevent future innovations from being discouraged.”

    That one slip up really had an effect: We will never let innovation happen again. Not on my watch!

  • http://www.sitepoint.com/ mattymcg

    Damn you and your eagle eye, Breton! :-)

  • banago

    Quite a interesting strong argumnet;

    all worked on things that nobody else believed in, but they persisted anyway.

    It is true that inovation needs courage when people see your project a time loss.

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