The timeless patterns that explain how innovation happens, or more often doesn’t, are explained in the bestselling book I wrote called The Myths of Innovation. The way innovation is generally explained is flawed. We rely on legends and myths that sound inspiring but have little relation to the truth about how good ideas become real.
If you’re frustrated by how your organization kills good ideas, or relies on caution more than creativity despite the proclamations from leaders to innovate, this book will help you understand what’s really going on and why.
The stories and facts in the book are its greatest asset. You’ll gain the longest lasting tools for thinking clearly about innovation from the book itself.
To help as many people as possible get beyond the myths, they are summarized here. The book was heavily researched with 100s of footnotes and references, but here’s the tightest summation:
- We overvalue the role of flashes of insight (The myth of epiphany). Flashes of insight feel great, but the way they’re reported distorts the well-documented history of how creativity and success happen. Epiphanies are a consequence of effort, not just the inspiration for it. And no idea is completely original, as all ideas are made from other ideas. When you hear a story about a flash of insight, the useful questions to ask are 1) how much time the creator spent working before the flash happened, 2) How many ideas from other people they reused and 3) how much work they did after the flash to make the idea successful. An epiphany doesn’t find investors, make prototypes, sacrifice free time or persist in the face of rejection: only you can do that and you’ll have to do it without a guarantee of success (More about epiphany myths).
- Technological progress does not move in a straight line (The myth that we know history). We romanticize the past to fit the present, creating traps for creatives who don’t know the true history of their own field. Edison did not invent the lightbulb. Ford did not invent the assembly line. Inspiring lies are often more popular than complex truths. And history is heavily tainted by survivorship bias, which distracts us away from more useful historic lessons. History is not a straight line of progress: it wasn’t clear that B would follow A, until after they happened, which means the present isn’t a straight line of progress either (jetpacks and flying cars are not flukes, historically we’re wrong far more often than we think). (see Myth #8: the best idea wins).
- Progress, and market success, are inherently unpredictable (The myth of a method). The challenge with creative work, especially in a marketplace, is the many factors beyond your control. You can do everything right and still fail. Most books on creativity make big promises based on history: they cherry pick examples from the past to support their “method”. Methods can be useful but they deny that the present is different from the past. There are too many variables in the present to have certainty. This is why terms like innovation system or innovation pipeline are absurd. The idea of an innovation portfolio, where a range of risk is assumed across multiple ideas, is more honest. Many books on creativity are surprisingly uncreative (lightbulbs should be banned from creativity book covers) and make impossible promises.
- People resist change, including progress (The myth we love new ideas). We are a conservative species: try something as simple as standing, rather than sitting, in your next group meeting. How accepting were your peers? Conformity is deep in our biology. While talking about creativity is very popular, actually being creative puts your social status at risk. All great ideas were rejected, often for years or decades, yet we bury this in our history (see Myth #1 & #2). The history of breakthroughs is a tale of persistence against rejection. Much of what makes a successful innovator is their ability to persuade and convince conservative people of the merits of their ideas, a very different skill from creativity itself. Your problem is likely not your ideas, but your skills for pitching ideas to others. Ideas are rarely rejected on their merits; they’re rejected because of how they make people feel. The bigger the idea, the harder the persuasion challenge.
- We overstate individual contributions and under-recognize teams (The myth of the lone inventor). It’s easier to worship a hero if they are portrayed as superhuman. But even people worthy of the title genius or prodigy like Mozart, Picasso and Einstein had family and teachers who taught them. Many of Edison’s patents are shared with co-workers, as despite his huge ego he knew collaboration was critical (His Menlo Park office was one of the first research labs). Stories of mad geniuses who worked completely alone are rare. Pick any master who you think worked alone and read some of their history: you’ll be surprised how many people influenced their work. Learning to collaborate, and give and receive feedback, may matter more than your brilliance.
- Good ideas are everywhere, it’s courage that’s scarce (The myth that good ideas are rare). If you watch any 6 year old child they will invent dozens of things in an hour. We are built for creativity. The problem is the conventions of adult life demand conformity and we sacrifice our creative instincts in favor of social status. Unlike a child, adults are supremely and instantly judgmental, killing ideas before they’ve had even a moment to prove their worth. It’s easy to rediscover creativity, which is why brainstorming rarely helps much. We’re already creative. The challenge is ideas don’t come with the courage to invest in them. Good ideas are everywhere: what’s uncommon is people with the conviction to put their reputation behind ideas.
- People in charge often resist change (The myth your boss knows more than you). A fallacy of workplaces is that senior staff are better at everything than the people who work for them. This is false in many ways, but creative intuition might be the most false. To rise in power demands good political judgement, yet innovation requires a willingness to defy convention. Convention-defiers are harder to promote in most organizations, yet essential for progress. To assume senior staff are the best at leading change is a mistake.
- The world of ideas is not a meritocracy (The myth the best idea wins). We lionize winners and history blames losers for their fate, even if they did most of the same things the winners did (See survivorship bias). Marketing, politics and timing have tremendous influence on why one idea or its competitors wins, yet these details are more complex than we want to hear and fade from history. It’s satisfying to believe the best idea has won in the past, because it’s something we want to believe about the present too. But to be successful with ideas demands studying why some lousy ideas have triumphed (Why doesn’t the U.S. use the metric system?), and some great ones are still on the sidelines. The world of ideas is not a pure meritocracy and you need to act accordingly (See related chapter excerpt).
- Defining problems well is as important as solving them (The myth that problems are less interesting than solutions). Einstein said “If I had 20 days to solve a problem I would take 19 to define it.” There are many creative ways to think about a problem, and different ways to look at a situation. The impatient run at full speed into solving things, speeding right past the insights needed to find a great solution. If you listen to how successful creators talk about their daily work, they spend more time thinking about the problem than the epiphany obsessed media would have us believe.
- Unintended consequences are hard to avoid (The myth that innovation is always good). How would you feel about an invention that ends your profession? What impact will an idea have 1,5,10,100 years from now? All innovation is change and all change helps some people and hurts others. Many horrible inventions were created with the best intentions (and some horrible intentions led to some good consequences). Benz and Ford never imagined automobiles would kill 40k people annually in the U.S. And the Wright brothers never imagined Predator drones. Any successful idea has a multitude of consequences that are impossible to predict and difficult to even measure.
If you liked this summary, please get the book. Over 100,000 people already have and the book has earned hundreds of excellent reviews. You’ll get detailed lessons and dozens of entertaining and inspiring stories based on well researched facts. It includes 4 chapters about how to apply everything you learn with a simple plan for the common challenges innovators face.
[Updated 7/7/13 – added link to Myth #3]
[Updated 10/11/19 – restated myths as declarative statements]