Book: The Myths of Innovation

Last week I picked up a copy of The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun. It’s a short little book, clocking in at 256 pages, paperback. The subject is, well, read the damn title of the book, silly! Berkun picks apart the many different myths that exist around innovation: epiphany, lone inventors, and many of the stories we tell ourselves after the fact about the messy process of innovation. It’s probably fair to say none of the insights provided by Berkun is all that shocking, but in a nice collected form you really get the point that we tell ourselves a lot of funny stories about innovation. My first thought upon reading the book was “oh, this book is for curmudgeons!” But upon reflection, perhaps this is exactly opposite. Curmudgeons will already know many of the myths and be curmudgeonly about them: it is the non-curmudgeonly among you who need to read the book 🙂
But one point that Berkun makes is something I heartily concur with: that laughter can be a sign that innovation is occurring (dear commenter who is about to comment on the causal structure of this claim, please reread this sentence.) As a grad student in Berkeley I participated in a 24 hour puzzle scavenger hunt around nearly all of the SF Bay Area. At each new location a puzzle/brainteaser would be given whose solution indicated the next location in the puzzle hunt. At many of these locations we would start working on the puzzle and someone would suggest something real crazy about the puzzle “hmmm, I bet this has something to do with semaphore” because, well the chess board colors are semaphore colors. And we would all laugh. Then someone would think to actually check the idea that we all laughed about. And inevitably it would be the key to solving the damn puzzle. After a few stops, we noticed this and so anytime someone would say something we would laugh at we’d have to immediately follow up on the idea 🙂 But this makes complete sense: insight or innovation occurs when we are, by definition, pushing the limits of what is acceptable. And laughter is often our best “defense” in these situations. Further laughter has a strong improv component: the structure of what is funny requires you to accept the craziness behind the joke and run with it. Who knows where a joke may take you (as opposed to this paragraph, which is going nowhere, and is about to end.)
Finally I wish every reviewer of papers and grants would read this book and especially the reviewers who said one of my grant applications was just too speculative for the committee’s taste 😉
And a note to myself when I get a bad review about something I really think is the bees knees: reread this book.

12 Replies to “Book: The Myths of Innovation”

  1. Dave:
    Let’s have a little fun with this insight to innovation:
    1) Small kids who were beaten up by the big bullies in grade school should be recruited for Olympics training school because they can figure out how to cheat and survive.
    2) When I tell my boss that he’s an idiot, he should give me a promotion.
    3) When I lock my car keys inside my car, it’s the fault of the auto manufacturers that the car doesn’t know that I’m standing outside in the rain laughing my head off.
    4) I can say anything that I want to say when I put a smiley face at the end. (Poe’s Law)'s_Law
    Do I hear groans or laughter? 😉

  2. Re your last two paragraphs: a few years ago I wrote down a list of the ten papers I most admired in quantum computing. So far as I know, not a single one of them was funded, except in the broadest possible sense (e.g., undirected fellowship money, that kind of thing). Yet the great majority of work on quantum computing is funded projects, often well funded. My conclusion was that if you’re doing something fundable, then it’s probably not very interesting. (This applies less so to experimental work.)
    (I think I’ve unloaded this rant on you before, Dave, apologies for the repeat. But maybe you should write out your own top ten list, and console yourself with that, next time someone tells you your ideas aren’t fundable…)

  3. Rocky: your post gives me an idea!
    Michael: Do you know if funding was attempted for these papers?
    One of the problems I had with “Myths” was that while it is true that new innovations face a lot of rejection, crappy innovations also have this property. How does one separate rejection of a good idea from rejection of a bad idea?

  4. Davde: No, I don’t. In some cases, it’s just surmise on my part that those papers weren’t funded: I really doubt David Deutsch’s great 1985 paper was, but maybe I’m wrong. In other cases, I have explicit information that they weren’t. In any case, all of them would fall into the “too vague, too ambitious” basket most of the time.

  5. Kind of dooms us research profs who subsist only on funded projects :). (My new description of what it’s like to be a research prof: it’s like being the money man at a startup with no exit plan!)
    Just curious: did your list include any experimental papers?

  6. Dave: in my initial attempts, yes. It turned into a nightmare. It’s hard enough comparing, say, Shor’s error-correction paper to BB84. But if you throw, say, one of the Wineland papers into the mix, I quickly realized I just had no idea how to make any sort of comparison. Ultimately, I focused on theory, although I have a (must less thought out) list of experimental papers as well. Unsurprisingly, experimental papers are more likely to be funded. Even there, though, many really significant papers were largely done off the back of old grants and equipment built for completely different purposes.

  7. Interesting. I know I’ve suggested to some experimentalists that the funding model for them isn’t as broken, but they inevitably tell me that I’m wrong and that their system is as messed up as the theorists 🙂
    Of course the real question is exactly how one could fix this. But I hope you’ll tell me this in your book 🙂

  8. I definitely won’t be talking about this in my book! Not that I don’t think it’s a fascinating problem, and not that I don’t have ideas on the subject, it’s just not the focus of the book.

  9. Speaking as a person who is wholly immune to the illogicality of humor, Dave’s post makes no sense to me.
    Logic is the sole arbiter, hence logic reigns supreme.
    To appreciate this point, it is helpful to study the in-depth analysis of history and science that is presented in the Blackadder series of historical docoments (1983-9). For quantum physicists in particular, the analysis of closed time-like curves in Blackadder: Back & Forth (2000) is highly recommended.

  10. Dave, just thought you’d be interested to see that yesterday my daughter and I visited the top-secret Siskiyous headquarters of the quantum enlightenment. 🙂
    On a slightly more serious note … the country around Yreka sure is beautiful. Not least beause it’s hugely rich in five essential elements: sunlight, water, silica, DNA, and people.
    For engineers, the 21st century quantum enlightenment is largely about finding good, innovative answers to the question: “What can we make from those five elements?”

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