5 lost truths on Innovation – My speech at The Economist

I spoke at the The Economist’s Ideas Economy event at UC Berkeley on March 24, 2010. Below is a transcript of a short speech I gave about the 5 most important and most overlooked notions about innovation are. The video of the talk is at the bottom..

Speech Transcript

Today I make a living as a writer of books and I talk about ideas from those books. But my first career was leading teams of people. I worked on Internet Explorer in the early days of the web, on version 1.0 to 5.0 and my job was to be a practitioner in many of the things we’ve been talking about so far at this event. My job most of those years was to lead a team of designers and engineers in making new things. We did research, we made prototypes, we engineered those prototypes into products, and we released them into the world. We shipped a new version about every 3 or 4 months, and the work we did was relatively new in the world, or at least new for Microsoft.

I was very young when I had this job, and I took it upon myself to learn as much as I could about what had come before my time. I studied what legends like Edison, Einstein, DaVinci, Ford and others had done. And not what we thought they did, but the actual histories, and first person accounts. I wanted to understand what they thought of their work at the time, rather than what we, much later, project retroactively into it. And when I quit my job in 2003 to write books, I knew I wanted to write a book about all the things I’d learned about creativity and invention, from personal experience and history, that I wished someone had told me when I started. There is so much misinformation in creative thinking and stories of invention. The book, The Myths of Innovation,  is a bestseller and explains much of my success so far, and it’s what I’m going to talk about today.

I’m an Occam’s razor kind of guy. And Occam’s razor is the notion that if you have two theories for explaining something, the simpler one is probably right. And when it comes to innovation this is the lens I use. And with that in mind I have a few observations for you.

First, most teams don’t work. They don’t trust each other. They are not led in a way that creates a culture where people feel trust. Think of most of your peers  – how many do you trust? How many would you trust with a special, dangerous, or brilliant idea?  I’d say, based on my experiences at many organizations, only one of every three teams, in all of the universe, has a culture of trust. Without trust, there is no collaboration. Without trust, ideas do not go anywhere even if someone finds the courage to mention them at all.

Second, most managers/leaders are risk averse. This isn’t their fault, as most people are risk averse. We have evolved to survive and that typically means being conservative and protecting the status quo. Looking at you in the audience I can tell you I don’t see anyone who has dressed innovatively, or is behaving creatively right now. You are all sitting in nice little rows, dressed in nice, but conservative business attire. This is not a surprise. Most people, most of the time, behave much as you are right now, certainly if anything involving work is concerned.

But without the ability to take risks, innovation and progress can not happen. Even if you have a good idea, to bring it into the world is risky. Even if you can develop that idea into a good product, you must release it into the world and there are a hundred unfair reasons outside of your control that will change how that ideas is perceived and whether it will succeed or fail.  The history of innovation and progress of all kinds is made up mostly of failures for this reason, and any great successful revolution you hear of was almost certainly proposed and rejected many times before it found any support in the world at all. You’ll find very few big ideas that were adopted with immediate open arms and unconditional love by those in power.We know this, which is why we often keep our best ideas to ourselves. They are much safer there.

Without teams of trust and good leaders who take risks innovation rarely happens. You can have all the budget in the world, and resources, and gadgets, and theories and S-curves and it won’t matter at all. Occam’s razor suggests the main barrier to innovation are simple cultural things we overlook because we like to believe we’re so advanced. But mostly, we’re not.

Third, we need to get past our obsession with epiphany. You won’t find any flash of insight in history that wasn’t followed, or proceeded, by years of hard work. Ideas are easy. They are cheap. Any creativity book or course will help you find more ideas. What’s rare is the willingness to bet you reputation, career, or finances on your ideas. To commit fully to pursuing them. Ideas are abstractions. Executing and manifesting an idea in the world is something else entirely as there are constraints, political, financial, and technical that the ideas we keep locked up in our minds never have to wrestle with. And this distinction is something no theory or book or degree can ever grant you. Conviction, like trust and willingness to take risks, is exceptionally rare. Part of the reason so much of innovation is driven by entrepreneurs and independents is that they are fully committed to their own ideas in ways most working people, including executives, are not.

Forth, I need to talk about words. I’m a writer and a speaker, so words are my trade. But words are important, and possibly dangerous, for everyone. A fancy word I want to share is the word reification. Reification is the confusion between the word for something and the thing itself. The word innovation is not itself an innovation. Words are cheap. You can put the word innovation on the back of a box, or in an advertisement, or even in the name of your company, but that does not make it so.  Words like radical, game-changing, breakthrough, and disruptive are similarly used to suggest something in lieu of actually being it. You can say innovative as many times as you want, but it won’t make you an innovator, nor  make inventions, patents or profits magically appear in your hands.

Fifth and last, I know from my studies if you are in the room when something that is later on called an innovation is being made, the language is always much simpler. Words like problem, solution, goal, experiment, and prototype,  simple workmanlike words are the language you’ll hear. And whenever I’m invited somewhere to talk about innovation, or to help an organization, and I’m in a meeting where any of the fancy words are used I always raise my hand and ask: What do you mean by innovation? And most of the time they have to stop and think. They don’t really know what they mean.

And if the person speaking doesn’t know what they mean, odds are good no one else in the room knows what they mean either. Without good communication trust is unlikely, if not impossible. Typically people mean one of five things when they say innovation:  1. We want to do something new 2. We want something new and good 3. We want something new and good and profitable 4. We want to be more aggressive and work faster 5. We just want to be perceived as being innovative.  Any of these simple declarations are easy to understand. Odds of innovation happening go up when this kind of language pervades a culture and history suggests clear language is one of the tools great thinkers, creators and innovators have always used.

[At the event itself the word innovation was used 181 times. That was almost 30 times an hour. I’ll leave it to you whether we’d have gotten more value from the day if the word was used more, or less, or if it made no difference at all.]

Lastly, I’d like to offer you an invitation. First, thanks to The Economist for inviting me to share a stage with Jared Diamond and Robert Reich. But also, for allowing me to give you a gift. There are 200 copies of my bestseller, the Myths of Innovation, waiting for you out in the hall. Thinking of Occam razor, I’d love to know if you see a simpler way to understand how innovation happens than the one I offer in the book, and to let me know about it. And by the same token, if the book helps simplify how you think about what you do, or hope to achieve, I’d like to hear about that too.  Thanks for listening.

Updated: Below is the actual video recording of my short speech (Direct link).

 

(Of course this invitation applies to anyone who reads the book. Let me know what you think if you’ve read the book – that’s what this blog is for)

74 Responses to “5 lost truths on Innovation – My speech at The Economist”

  1. Tim Andren

    Great speech Scott. I wasn’t there, but it sounded good in my head as I read it. I’d like to read your book someday. Fancy a blog interview/discussion?

    Reply
  2. Wisepreneur

    Thanks for the speech. I wish I had written it. Creative people are relatively easy to find as compared to people who can effectively implement creative ideas.

    If we really want to crank up innovation, we need to make it more risky to ignore good ideas than it is to use them.

    Reply
  3. Mike Haden

    Nicely said. Having just read through ‘Confessions of a Public Speaker’, and thinking of your comments on feedback, what was the feedback? Did anyone approach you afterwards re: a simpler way to understand innovation? What was your sense of how your comments were received? Thumbs up, down or meh?

    Reply
  4. Cesar Castro

    Scott,

    Very good speech. Sometimes the hardest part of solving a problem is identifying what the problem is. Your point about asking people to define innovation before trying to tackle the “innovation problem” is valid.

    Question: I’m a bootstrapped entrepreneur who desperately wanted to attend the Economist event but couldn’t afford the admission fee. Any chance I can get a copy of your book?

    And on the topic of innovation myths I’m fascinated by the story of Alexander Graham Bell and who the real inventor of the telephone was. He was the first to patent the invention but it remains unclear if he was the original inventor.

    Reply
  5. Ricardo Patrocínio

    Great speech Scott, congratulations!

    I could not agree more when you say “clear language is one of the tools great thinkers, creators and innovators have always used.” Probably the most important fact for success in sharing ideas is how clear you can deliverer the message.

    As Anthony Robbins says: “The quality of your life is the quality of your communication”.

    Reply
  6. florian

    Scott, when you talk about the difficulty of convincing people to take risk for your own idea, I can totally identify with the challenge. 3,5 years ago I started to work on my dream to bring European people together for the first time on a larg-scale people-to-people level. And even if you do all your homework like minimizing the perceived risk through VIP testimonials, growing fb fan pages, political backup, operational top-notch partners, etc you still face those risk averse people on the corporate side who will do everything to not be innovative. We will make it thanks to an abundance of perseverance and passion. But I fully agree with you. Great talk. Greetings from Barcelona, Florian

    Reply
  7. Learn More

    Mr Scott, believe me, “Making things happen” is out of this world. People should read it at least once in their life. It helped me, and i am sure others will be helped too.

    Reply
  8. Casy

    Wow awesome speech! Just watched the video too!

    Reply
    1. Brandon Awadis

      Nicely said. Having just read through ‘Confessions of a Public Speaker’, and thinking of your comments on feedback, what was the feedback? Did anyone approach you afterwards re: a simpler way to understand innovation? What was your sense of how your comments were received? Thumbs up, down or meh?

      Reply
  9. Jane McCafferty

    Someone just sent me this link — wow! They weren’t kidding. Amazing speech, very inspirational.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  10. Click More

    Amazing insights into leadership and innovation. Its the trust deficit hat make teams dysfunctional. Have seen a team of handful individuals pull off a major transformation and at the same time, few tens of people struggle to deliver a result. Kudos to the views

    Reply
  11. Sean

    Scott, fantastic speech. Your point about Occam’s razor is a true one–People get so consumed and infatuated with that big idea, epiphanies, and moments of genius. Life, unfortunately, doesn’t usually work like this. You need to work, and work hard. Give yourself stimuli that you wish to someday create yourself.

    Reply
  12. Weight Lifting Gloves

    Amazing insights into leadership and innovation. Its the trust deficit hat make teams dysfunctional. Have seen a team of handful individuals pull off a major transformation and at the same time, few tens of people struggle to deliver a result. Kudos to the views

    Reply
  13. Check it out

    I completely agree with the others, a great speech! “Making things happen” is a fantastic read and I recommend to my friends

    Reply
  14. Learn More

    What an incredible speech that really hits home. I also wish I had the gift of delivering powerful and captivating speeches such as this one.

    Reply
  15. good smelled

    I liked you idea about words, honestly sometimes i also feel like out of stock of words. Anyway, your speech was great. Unfortunately missed the video.

    Reply
  16. Mike Snowden

    great speech. if followed to the later then this world would be a better place. thanks a lot for sharing the information.

    Reply
  17. Vannak Eng

    I love the quote saying without trust there is no collaborations. this is true. when my friends and I want to start something new, first we have little trust in each other and when it comes to action, no trust at all. This is what I learn.

    Reply
  18. James S

    Great speech. Makes me look like a real amateur when comparing to how I present at conferences :)

    Reply
  19. Liam Ness

    Amazing insights Scott, I like how you’ve simplified using Occam’s razor notion. I look forward to hearing more of your speeches, keep up the good work :)

    Reply
  20. Chum Visal

    Great Speech ever

    Reply
  21. Sarah Gotheridge

    I completely agree with the others, a great speech! “Making things happen” is a fantastic read and I recommend to my friends

    Reply
  22. Salman Aslam

    Scott do you have any more upcoming talks or speech in 2015 or 2016? I really liked your style and would like to add them to my calendar so I don’t miss out on it

    Reply
  23. Dan Wright

    Great speech Scott. I got few ideas how I can improve my presentation skills. Thanks for sharing with us.

    Reply
  24. Vanya

    Without trust, there’s no collaboration. Very true!

    Reply
  25. Jacky Makany

    Nice speech. Makes me look like a real when comparing to how I present at conferences.

    Reply
  26. Tony

    Great speech, I really like it

    Reply
  27. David Ferraro

    Great speech, I really like this. I liked you idea about words, honestly sometimes i also feel like out of stock of words. Anyway, your speech was great. I see the video, too. Thank you for sharing :)

    Reply
  28. Vincent

    It is an amazing speech. You hit all the points. Thank you very much for sharing.

    Reply
  29. Ewan Sims

    I admit the fact that being risk averse is a hurdle in the path of success. I wasn’t taking risks in my massage business and was afraid of my competitors and then after continuous failure of two years I thought that my competitors are taking risks and making money and growing then why I’m afraid of failure? So for the past six months I’m a risk taker and taking every single risk that can take my business to the peak of success.

    Reply
  30. Monerath

    I love the quote saying without trust there are no collaborations. this is true. when my friends and I want to start something new, first we have little trust in each other and when it comes to action, no trust at all. This is what I learn.

    Reply
  31. Andrew Carr

    Scott,

    Great speech. People often get caught up in grandiose ideas but fail to do anything about them. It’s best to do one thing perfectly, then move on from there.

    Reply
  32. Chase Patterson

    Almost every manager that I have had has been risk-averse. How do you avoid these types of managers?

    Reply
  33. Sereyboth Yorn

    Really Great Speech! Really admire you with that job, especially when you was very young! Thumb up!

    Reply

Pingbacks

  1. […] My speech at The Economist (on innovation) « Scott Berkun – Replace innovation with sustainability – aha!: "Lastly, I need to talk about words. I’m a writer and a speaker, so words are my trade. But words are important, and possibly dangerous, for everyone. A fancy word I want to share is the word reification. Reification is the confusion between the word for something and the thing itself. The word innovation is not itself an innovation. Words are cheap. You can put the word innovation on the back of a box, or in an advertisement, or even in the name of your company, but that does not make it so. Words like radical, game-changing, breakthrough, and disruptive are similarly used to suggest something in lieu of actually being it. You can say innovative as many times as you want, but it won’t make you an innovator, nor make inventions, patents or profits magically appear in your hands."<br /> The whole post is worth a read. […]

  2. […] My speech at The Economist (on innovation) « Scott Berkun – Replace innovation with sustainability – aha!: "Lastly, I need to talk about words. I’m a writer and a speaker, so words are my trade. But words are important, and possibly dangerous, for everyone. A fancy word I want to share is the word reification. Reification is the confusion between the word for something and the thing itself. The word innovation is not itself an innovation. Words are cheap. You can put the word innovation on the back of a box, or in an advertisement, or even in the name of your company, but that does not make it so. Words like radical, game-changing, breakthrough, and disruptive are similarly used to suggest something in lieu of actually being it. You can say innovative as many times as you want, but it won’t make you an innovator, nor make inventions, patents or profits magically appear in your hands."<br /> The whole post is worth a read. […]

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