5 lost truths on Innovation – My speech at The Economist

Below is a transcript of a short speech (video at bottom) I gave at the The Economist’s Ideas Economy event at UC Berkeley on the 5 most important and most overlooked notions about innovation that managers and leaders often ignore at their peril. .

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).

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

  1. Mark

    Thanks for the thoughts, Scott. I am also an Occam’s razor kind of guy.

  2. Andry

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

  3. vr head

    Just found this old piece of content but somehow still up to date. Great speech!

  4. Darko

    I agree with you when you say that most managers/leaders are risk averse.

    That’s the problem I find with a lot of mid-range companies these days. No one wants to take any chances and those that do are told to be quiet and get back to work.

    Bigger, more aggressive companies innovate all the time so the leaders/managers are more than willing to take risks and you see the same thing with hungry small companies and entrepreneurs.

  5. Vicky

    Brilliant post Scott, these 5 truths are really necessary to heave great innovation.

  6. Jackson Jor

    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.

  7. Mark

    This was an amazing speech Scott. Innovation (creativity) is slowly dying as people continue to follow trends and occupy the lazy social media space. How many young lads are writing, leave alone reading, books? The number is very low

  8. Coco

    Really enjoyed your speech. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Alex

    That was a great speech. Now more than ever is so important to just start with your ideas and see where they lead you.

  10. Tepy Thai

    Thanks for a great detail article. I personally agree with the first point the most, “most teams don’t work”. As for myself, I only share and explain my ideas in detail to whom I have my trust with. I think it takes quite long time to trust people with our great ideas.

  11. Marko

    Hi Scott, I got your The Myths of Innovation book as a gift from a friend, and let me tell you.. it’s a true eye opener. I’ve been following your work ever since, also going to get some other books :)

  12. Fille Be

    Thanks for this great speech, Scott. Will surely read your other posts as well :)

  13. Thomas

    Great speech Scott. I found out about you from YouTube and now digging back through your blog articles is really interesting. Keep up the good work!

  14. Linda

    Hi Scott, enjoyed the speech and I’m also reading Myths of Innovation which is great!

  15. Suraj

    really great and impressive speech, i heard it twice

  16. Alex

    Thanks for your meaningful speech, Scott. Hoping to see more from you.

  17. Alex Meyer

    What an awesome speech. Can’t believe it’s been 7 years from this

  18. Enrique

    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.

  19. Dennis Taylor

    Wonderful speech, Scott. Totally agree with the second point that most managers/leaders are risk averse. People naturally steer clear of potential losses, even when the projected benefits of a decision equal, or even exceed, the potential for loss. Managers tend to consider each business decision (and set of risks) on its own, rather than considering the successes and failures of all the decisions they must make over a period of time (i.e. a large number of projects may likely net out favorably, with some failures and some successes).

  20. Billy Clark

    Thank you, Scott, Very impressive speech. Love the way you talk about the third truth: we need to get past our obsession with epiphany.

  21. Alice

    Inspiring speech, I’m going to try to take more risks this year. Keep up the interesting posts Scott.

  22. Gimbal Review

    Great post! Still as relevant today as it was in 2010. THanks for posting the video too.

  23. Patrick

    Amazing Speech scott.

    I really like how you define innovation. That’s really inspiring.

    Keep it up

    Thanks again.

  24. Matt

    Great speech. I wholeheartedly agree, without hard work even the best ideas won’t come to fruition.

  25. Rebeca

    Great speech Scott. Can’t believe it’s been 8 years from this.

  26. Lacrosse Pal

    Amazing as always Scott.

    The way you explain and perceive innovation is amazing to me. Got a lot of great insights from your speech here.

    Keep up the good work man.

    Thank you

  27. Megan

    Scott, what I read is a very sad but true article. I look forward to discussing this topic. Congratulations !

  28. Araki

    Hi, I’m from Japan. I have read your article and it is really great. Thank you for sharing.

  29. Roland Carroll

    Nicely written. Perfectly covered with the exact topic. Really Impressed. Thanks for the post.

  30. Rishad

    Hi Scott, Great speech and i also agree with you, it’s 2020 but still it’s true

  31. Eric Newman

    Really amazing speech! You totally rocked :)


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