Be innovative, but don't use that word

Author Scott Berkun revisits the "Myths of Innovation" three years later.

Scott BerkunScott Berkun challenged popular assumptions about innovation and greatness three years ago with “The Myths of Innovation.” Now, as an updated paperback edition arrives, Berkun revisits the book and its themes.

Among the points Berkun makes in the following interview:

  • He isn’t a fan of self-defined innovation. “It’s a good word to let other people say about you, rather than use it in reference to yourself,” he says.
  • Not feeling creative? Berkun proposes an easy (albeit claustrophobic) method for getting it back.
  • He says our emphasis on fantasies, heroes, and silver bullets obscures the real stories — and the real work — behind notable people and projects.

The full interview follows.

How do you define “innovation”?

Scott Berkun: I strongly recommend people use this word as little as possible. It’s mostly a distraction. Many great ideas and breakthroughs were achieved without people worrying if they were innovative enough or not. They simply chose to try and solve a problem they or their customers cared about. And then later on, after the hard work was done, they were called “innovators.” It’s a good word to let other people say about you, rather than use it in reference to yourself.

My favorite definition is “significant positive change.” Often we get excited about new technologies, but many popular things fail to create positive change at all.

Is innovation an acquired skill?

SB: We are all capable of finding and developing ideas. Two entire chapters in the book explore the science of creativity, and how our brains work regarding ideas. If you are alive, have a job, and can drive yourself to work, you have creative ability.

An easy test: if I locked you, or anyone you know, in a closet, after an hour you’d be plenty innovative. You’d experiment and try things in order to escape. The tools are all there in our minds. What’s missing is awareness of the tools, comfort in the uncertainty, and the motivation to work hard to deliver on an idea. Next time someone tells you they’re not feeling creative, just lock them in the closet. It will work wonders.

Do we place emphasis on epiphanies because the alternatives — context, consistency, hard work — are a lot harder?

SB:We like silver bullets and magic spells. They’re fantasies, and fantasies are way more fun than hard work. We also like heroes, as worshiping is easier than working. The soul of the book is about showing what all of our heroes actually did. The real methods they used to achieve the great things they’re famous for. There is plenty to emulate about Edison, Tesla, Da Vinci, Jobs and others. It’s just shockingly rare to find the amazing true stories of how they achieved great things. That’s what the “Myths of Innovation” does.

Has your perspective on the book changed since it was first published three years ago?

SB: I’m dramatically more convinced of the key themes of the book. I know that sounds daft, but for the paperback edition I reviewed every chapter and every point, and I feel even stronger about them today than I did when the book first came out. I expected I’d have to rewrite huge portions, as so much has changed, but that was the surprise. The book’s stories and themes hold up amazingly well, which is part of why the book has been so popular. The new epilogue reflects a more strident view on how to make sense of innovation and cut through the pervasive nonsense and hype.

What’s new in the paperback edition?

SB: We heavily reviewed the book, tightening things, adding some choice stories, and improving references. We also added four chapters, but instead of adding more myths, I chose to add practical advice: How to convert the wisdom gained from the book into better ideas, smarter plans, and healthier teams and companies.