The myths of innovation

As the importance of innovation in business grows at the fast pace of internet, there is a similar emergence of tech age epics and heroes we like to tell and listen to. We all know some of those success stories, but do we know of it because they’re accurate, or because they’re good stories?
The problem that may come with the romanticisation of those stories is that some parts are omitted, some infatuated, and some may even be false. They are thus giving us a wrong ideal about what innovation is, and how to make it happen. Scott Berkun has summarized in 10 myths those wrong beliefs that are hindering our capacity to innovate.

The epiphany
In many stories, breakthrough is reported coming in some sort of eureka moment to the ones that are lucky enough to have it. While the circumstances of the discovery may not be untrue, this story is entirely focusing on one moment of the process of discovery and completely discarding the others: work prior to and after the epiphany.

The lesson that this teaches us is that innovation doesn’t come by luck, or flash of genius, but is the fruit of passionate work alternated with well-earned breaks.

Problems are less interesting than solutions
Let’s face it, we all want to find solutions, not problems. Problems are usually not good. However, understanding the problem we’re trying to find a solution to is the first step to innovation, and successful innovation often involve more attention to problem than to the solution.
The second step to innovation is framing the problem: since simple objectives with clear identification of problem are more powerful than complex ones since they give a better direction to solution, but getting to that is deceptively hard.

The lone inventor
If you’re asked who invented the lightbulb, you might quasi automatically respond Edison.
In truth, many of Edison’s patents are shared with co-workers. He, like every great inventor, had unnamed assistants to help him and stories of mad geniuses who worked completely alone are rare.
In term of invention, the ability to collaborate is more important than brilliance. Interaction is crucial to idea generation and improvement, which is why incubators, campuses, and Silicon Valley are so performant at fostering innovation.

Your boss knows more than you
A shortcut we could make quite easily is that our seniors are right. The first reason to this is that we want to believe in meritocracy, so we believe the “best” get promoted, ignoring that the skillset needed for management is very different of the one for innovation.
But the biggest reason for which we may want to believe that is that it’s easy: it absolves us of our responsibility to think by ourselves. This would be falling into argument from authority fallacy and giving the burden of always having to be right to our superior, while it’s our duty to challenge, improve, and sell ideas.

We know history
When we’re looking at innovation, we’re doing it through the lens of the products that reached us, and it seems the path it took to get to us was quite straightforward.
This misconception comes from survivor bias: we’re only looking at the story of the successfully adopted dominant design while having no or little knowledge of prior attempts or competing solution. The takeaway here is that we will not know in advance if innovation will be successful: it will be full of doubt; so observe the competition to learn from them and from their mistakes.

A method to innovation
As innovation will be full of doubt, we desperately want to believe there is a method that can free us of that uncertainty to ensure the delivery of certain outcomes.
The harsh truth here is that innovation is messy and we can’t avoid risk since it’s entirely part of the process. So it only leave us with the good old do-fail-learn-repeat.

Good ideas are rare
A consequence of believing we’ll know from the start if an idea is going to be successful is that we’re expecting too much of our ideas, believing thus that good ideas are rare.
In reality, we are made for inventing: what makes us a dominant species is not our strength nor speed, but our intelligence. The problem is that we’ll instantly dismiss our new ideas, because we want them to be perfect from the start. Ideas are like raw diamonds, they won’t look nice until we take the time to polish and cut them, but ideas don’t come with the courage to invest in them.

We love new ideas
Remember how innovation seems a straight path to here? The same can be said for adoption, we see something widely used nowadays and think that it was easily accepted.
However, we tend to dislike anything unknown or new. There is an evolutionary conditioning to this: most of our ancestors that tried new stuff or ate strange looking things probably died painfully, so we stick to what is known; conformism is within our DNA. In light of that, what matters most may not be our capacity to have and improve idea, but our capacity to convince people to adopt them, and the greater the change, the harder the persuasion challenge.

The best idea wins
We want to believe the best idea always wins. Remember our survivorship bias makes us blind at similar innovations that didn’t “make it”. It’s also true for the innovation that were better than their surviving counterpart.
But the goodness of an idea is only one of the factors determining its success, other factors are the ability to sell it, and the environment. Consequentially, the innovation that will win isn’t the best, it’s the one that has the best balance between goodness and ease of adoption (and marketing budget)

Innovation is always good
As good ideas don’t always win, we shouldn’t expect innovation to be inherently good. While tech aficionado may loathe luddites for opposing innovation because it’s innovation, defending innovation for the sake of it is just as bigoted.
We shouldn’t fall into any Manicheism related to it: innovation is change that totally disregards any notion of goodness. The best example might be nuclear power, which provides us with electricity and nuclear bombs. As in this case, innovators may not predict the impacts of their work before it is used; innovation will have good and bad consequences despite all their intentions, may they be good or bad.

Innovation doesn’t come from individuals that came upon a great idea that knew an obvious success. Innovation is the fruit of the hard work of teams, which will compete with others for an uncertain adoption.
So don’t waste time and get to work! You never know if you’ll succeed until you’ve tried enough. Innovation might be closer than you think.

Source: The myths of innovation 

Author:  Alexandre Haterte, Consultant