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June 28, 2007

Ten Questions with Scott Berkun, Author of "The Myths of Innovation"


Scott Berkun worked on the Internet explorer team at Microsoft from 1994-1999. He is the author of a recently released book called The Myths of Innovation. He also wrote the 2005 bestseller, The Art of Project Management. He teaches a graduate course in creative thinking at the University of Washington, runs the sacred places architecture tour at NYC’s GEL conference, and writes about innovation, design and management.

In his most recent book he explores (or, more accurately, “explodes”) the romantic notions of how innovation occurs. Join me in this Q and A session as he explains the real world of innovation.

  1. Question: How long does it take in the real world—as opposed to the world of retroactive journalism—for an “epiphany” to occur?

    Answer: An epiphany is the tip of the creative iceberg, and all epiphanies are grounded in work. If you take any magic moment of discovery from history and wander backwards in time you’ll find dozens of smaller observations, inquiries, mistakes, and comedies that occured to make the epiphany possible. All the great inventors knew this—and typically they downplayed the magic moments. But we all love exciting stories—Newton getting hit by an apple or people with chocolate and peanut butter colliding in hallways—are just more fun to think about. A movie called “watch Einstein stare at his chalkboard for 90 minutes” wouldn’t go over well with most people.

  2. Question: Is progress towards innovation made in a straight line? For example, transistor to chip to personal computer to web to MySpace.

    Answer: Most people want history to explain how we got here, not to teach them how to change the future. To serve that end, popular histories are told in heroic, logical narratives: they made a transistor, which led to the chip, which create the possibility for the PC, and on it goes forever. But of course if you asked William Shockey (transistor) or Steve Wozniak (PC) how obvious their ideas and successes were, you’ll hear very different stories about chaos, uncertainty and feeling the odds were against them.

    If we believe things are uncertain for innovators in the present, we have to remember things were just as uncertain for people in the past. That’s a big goal of the book: to use amazing tales of innovation history as tools for those trying to do it now.

  3. Question: Are innovators born or made?

    Answer: Both. Take Mozart. Yes, he had an amazing capacity for musical composition, but he also was born in a country at the center of the music world, had a father who was a music teacher, and was forced to practice for hours every day before he started the equivalent of kindergarten. I researched the history of many geniuses and creators and always find a wide range of factors, some under their control and some not, that made their achievements possible.

  4. Question: What the toughest challenge that an innovator faces?

    Answer: It’s different for every innovator, but the one that crushes many is how bored the rest of the world was by their ideas. Finding support, whether emotional, financial, or intellectual, for a big new idea is very hard and depends on skills that have nothing to do with intellectual prowess or creative ability. That’s a killer for many would-be geniuses: they have to spend way more time persuading and convincing others as they do inventing, and they don’t have the skills or emotional endurance for it.

  5. Question: Where do inventors and innovators get their ideas?

    Answer: I teach a creative thinking course at the University of Washington, and the foundation is that ideas are combinations of other ideas. People who earn the label “creative” are really just people who come up with more combinations of ideas, find interesting ones faster, and are willing to try them out. The problem is most schools and organizations train us out of the habits.

  6. Question: Why do innovators face such rejection and negativity?

    Answer: It’s human nature—we protect ourselves from change. We like to think we’re progressive, but every wave of innovation has been much slower than we’re told. The telegraph, the telephone, the PC, and the internet all took decades to develop from ideas into things ordinary people used. As a species we’re threatened by change and it takes a long time to convince people to change their behavior, or part with their money.

  7. Question: How do you know if you have a seemingly stupid idea according to the “experts” that will succeed or a stupid idea that is truly stupid?

    Answer: Don’t shoot me, but the answer is we can’t know. Not for certain. That’s where all the fun and misery comes in. Many stupid ideas have been successful and many great ideas have died on the vine and that’s because success hinges on factors outside of our control.

    The best bet is to be an experimenter, a tinkerer—to learn to try out ideas cheaply and quickly and to get out there with people instead of fantasizing in ivory towers. Experience with real people trumps expert analysis much of the time. Innovation is a practice—a set of habits—and it involves making lots of mistakes and being willing to learn from them.

  8. Question: If you were a venture capitalist, what would your investment thesis be?

    Answer: Two parts: neither is original, but they borne out by history. One is portfolio. Invest knowing most ventures, even good ones, fail, and distribute risk on some spectrum (e.g. 1/3 very high risk, 1/3 high risk, 1/3 moderate risk). Sometimes seemingly small, low risk/reward innovations have big impacts and it’s a mistake to only make big bets.

    The other idea is people: I’d invest in people more than ideas or business plans—though those are important of course. A great entrepreneur who won’t give up and will keep growing and learning is gold. It’s a tiny percentage of entrepreneurs who have any real success the first few times out—3M, Ford, Flickr were all second or third efforts. I’d also give millions of dollars to authors of recent books on innovation with the word Myth in the title. The future is really in their hands.

  9. Question: What are the primary determinants of the speed of adoption of innovation?

    Answer: The classic research on the topic is Diffusion of Innovation by Rogers, which defines factors that hold up well today. The surprise to us is that they’re all sociological: based on people’s perception of value and their fear of risks—which often has little to do with our view of how amazing a particular technology is. Smarter innovators know this and pay attention from day one to who they are designing for and how to design the website or product in a way that supports their feelings and beliefs.

  10. Question: What’s more important: problem definition or problem solving?

    Answer: Problem definition is definitely under-rated, but they’re both important. New ideas often come from asking new questions and being a creative question asker. We fixate on solutions and popular literature focuses on creative people as being solvers, but often the creativity is in reformulating a problem so that it’s easier to solve. Einstein and Edison were notorious problem definers: they defined the problem differently than everyone else and that’s what led to their success.

  11. Question: Why don’t the best ideas win?

    Answer: One reason is because the best idea doesn’t exist. Depending on your point of view, there’s a different best idea or best choice for a particular problem. I’m certain that they guys who made telegraphs didn’t think the telephone was all that good an idea, but it ended their livelihood. So many stories of progress gone wrong are about arrogance of perception: what one person thinks is the right path—often the path most profitable to them— isn’t what another, more influential group of people thought.

  12. Question: Is innovation more likely to come from young people or old people? Or is age simply not a factor?

    Answer: Innovation is difficult, risky work, and the older you are, the greater the odds you’ll realize this is the case. That explanation works best. Beethoven didn’t write his nineth symphony until late in his life, so we know many creatives stay creative no matter how old they are. But their willingness to endure all the stresses and challenges of bringing an idea to the world diminishes. They understand the costs better from the life experience. The young don’t know what their is to fear, have stronger urges to prove themselves, and have fewer commitments—for example, children and mortgages. These factors that make it easier to try crazy things.


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» How Does Innovation Occur? from The Agitator
It's Monday Mind Stretch time again.Here's an interview, courtesy of Guy Kawasaki of Mac marketing fame, with Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation.Interesting points:Epiphanies or magic moments are really the culmination [Read More]

» It's all about asking the right questions. from BrainBlog
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» Stupid idea...or is it? from Tom's blog
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» Guy Kawasaki on Innovation from The Blogfather
Guy Kawasaki at How to Change the World sits down for a Q&A session with Scott Berkun and discusses innovation. Guy Kawasaki is a venture capitalist who used to be the Macintosh evangelist for Apple. Scott Berkun was on the... [Read More]

» Ten Questions with Scott Berkun, Author of "The Myths of Innovation" from Marketing & Strategy Innovation Blog
by: Guy KawasakiScott Berkun worked on the Internet explorer teamat Microsoft from 1994-1999. He is the author of a recently released book called The Myths of Innovation. He also wrote the 2005 bestseller, The Art of Project Management. He ... [Read More]

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Regarding innovation being a small, incremental process, here's one of my favorite quotations from a classic martial arts text which likewise applies to innovation:

"Without long practice one cannot suddenly understand it."
-- from The Essence of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, by Lo, Inn, Amacker, and Foe

brilliant article!

definition is everything

Interesting article!

my first time to your blog - definitely not the last...

Really enjoyed some of the quotes - especially pertaining to hard work being the backdrop to ephiphanies. This is a concept that so often seems to be lost. Look forward to more articles and interviews.

The young don’t know what their [sic] is to fear, have stronger urges to prove themselves, and have fewer commitments—for example, children and mortgages. These factors that make it easier to try crazy things.

Actually, these traits can apply for older people also, especially fewer commitments: children (still living at home, that is) and mortgages (assuming they didn't take on a econd mortgage to keep up with the Joneses).

Some of the most refreshing people I know are open-minded older people who are therefore able to leverage their experience in new ways. They are not "elderly" by any means except numerically.

And Frank Lloyd Wright did most of his legendary work after the age of 70.

I'm just saying I hope I am more like Frank Lloyd Wright in terms of innovative thinking when I get older and not the sterotypical Fox News/Talk radio shut-in uber-grump. It's a choice people can actively make. :-)

Good to read the post. Thanks.
I would say, what makes an idea successful or failure is its execution than how advanced/innovative it is alone.

Don't you think that bloggers should be less mindless and post on more meaningful things such as charity? America is in the toilet and you aren't do your fair share to make it better. You are a journalist but not an activist. I would hate to be you.

Consider making a difference and make your next blog entry on something worth caring about. How about suggesting to your readers your favorite charity. Maybe some of them will even contribute...


This is a facinating area and one that I have tried to understand it better for some time. Perhaps the most interesting notion in this area, for me, over the past few years was that so well described by the Heath brothers in "Made to Stick". Their finding was that "Creativity starts with templates". To me this was initially counter-intuitive but when you look at the evidence and then try it for yourself all becomes clear.

Innovation is such an interesting process to watch from the inside. So few of us are lucky enough to have been present at a point where the light is finally switched on.

I enjoyed reading this interview of someone else who has been through the mill on a number of occasions.


I like your blog, it’s always fun to come back and check what you have to tell us today.

i really appreciate your blog. i stumbled upon it through a couple of other blogs and have been hooked since. this post is especially pertinent to my situation here in FL. i'm in the middle of starting a web design company for small businesses and churches, a mortgage lending company with a partner, and a "20somethings" ministry at my church. right now, i'm also reading "the art of the start" which, as you know, is helpful with starting all three. God bless you for your willingness to help us young guys get started by offering unfettered advice.

Michael Gerber wrote about the e-Myth. Now we have the i-Myth? It is almost i-ronic that it was written by a Microsofty.

"Tammy - "That's funny..." is my favorite Asimov quote. He was so right.

Very nice interview, indeed! It was like talking to somebody up there (i wanted to use "God"). The views are very refreshing but of course, it would not have been delivered if the questions were not as brilliant. Good work!

Guy, Guys,

This is a great post or what. I find it enjoyable. The most important fact for me is how Scott underline the importance of hard-work after the idea.

Tammy is remembering how Isaac is says 'Eureka!' (I found it!)is not that important but, 'That's funny...' I would add, wow I found it, this is a lot of work ahead!

Mario Ruiz

P.S. Taleb is kinda French (well, actually Lebanese, but son of French citizens). I guess that would make him the hypothetical love child of Steve Jobs and Jean-Louis Gassée.

Guy, a more philosophical treatment of several of his answers are given in Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan. The point about narrative fallacy is so important. We all want a nice story about how things happen, and so often, there is really no interesting story! Also, innovation can not be paced, and those who claim to be able to do it are liars ;-). I will definitely buy Señor Berkun's book. Taleb's book has consumed my brain and I need some light reading. But it is refreshing to see from the kinds of books coming out that we're becoming wise about the creative process to match our enthusiasm.

The difference between insanity and creativity, or crazy and genius is simply perception. That homeless guy down the street can have the intellectual capacity equal to Einstein but didn't have motivation/ambition or luck on their side.


Guy, great interview. Interesting to see you highlight someone from the M****S*** company you so loved while at Apple.

This interview seems to tie in well with the ideas of Clay Christenson in his "Innovator's Dilemma".

New technology develops in S curves, and the disruptive technology is initially lower margin, serves a different customer base, and fails against the key deciding factors for the existing market. (He uses the example of disk drives-- mainframe users wanted capacity and the smaller size drive had lower capacity and was more expensive...but was a much better product for emerging desktop and laptop users).

Once the disruptive technology has grown in other markets until it now meets the needs of the broad market ("good enough"), then the criteria of the marketplace change to favor the disruptive entrant. This may explain why Scott makes the comment that the "rest of the world was initially bored by the idea/product". In that sense, it does truly start out inferior in the major markets.

In my world (health) that implies using disruptive ideas (like the learnings of the consumer internet) to develop markets where insurance companies have no desire to roam. I'm curious why we haven't seen many tech players in that space (and for those interested-- I'm looking for some tech help in my venture to change how health works.)

Related to Q&A 12 (age), I saw yesterday this nice commercial (on YouTube) to get kids into engineering.

yes, so true on the best ideas, capital, liquidity, etc. to go with innovative outside the box thinking

Interview about Innovations is great from the innovator himself. I recently wrote something on Innovation in my personal blog. I would request your attention here. I am not trying to spam though. Please read, if some of you are interested.

Rajesh Shakya
Helping Technopreneurs to Excel and Lead Their Life!

A great interview. Many of the ideas discussed are supported by the work of James Burke, a British technology journalist who has investigated the causality of innovation and how there are very few "breakthroughs". If you haven't read any of Mr. Burke's works, and are interested in how one thing builds on another until the Eureka moment, I would strongly recommend "The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made Carburetor Possible - and Other Journeys" and "Connections" - also check out http://www.palmersguide.com/jamesburke/.

Guy, The interview is great and it brings up a question that seems to underlie many VC-written blogs. Is there a perception, by the VC community, that technology and web innovation is more of a game for the younger 25-31 year old crowd? Is there a preconception that the older crowd is best at bringing in the discipline of product and company execution rather than being innovators themselves? Is there a point where the VC community says "she's too old to be innovative?" Is the younger crowd more committed because they work so many hours or is just that they really don't have a life yet? And finally, does the older crowd need to work the same hours to accomplish the same output or just to show commitment?


Guy Thanks for the interview with Scott and going the extra mile(Questions).

I had some doubt creep up time to time but the following questions cleared that fog for me

3 Question: Are innovators born or made?

10 Question: What’s more important: problem definition or problem solving?

Employee To Entrepreneur

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