The hidden link between Rosslyn Chapel and Innovation

Most of the ways we tend to think about innovation and innovators are just wrong, based on comic book-like fables of eureka moments and genius super heros.

That's some of what I got from Scott Berkun's new book, The Myths of Innovation.

I got a PR email about this book a few weeks ago that piqued my interest. I sent around an email to some co-workers suggesting it might be a good book to take on vacation. One replied: You'd take that to the beach?

Well, I'm geeky and I wasn't headed to the beach, but to Edinburgh, Scotland.

The title is on the stodgy side, suggesting a voluminous tome on innovation through the ages. But the book is not dense at all: it's 175 pages of good-sized print with photos and drawings scattered about. After you read the preface, you can skip around chapters if you like, but I read it straight through. Don't overlook the footnotes, there are some gems of factoids there. It's a quick read, even with footnotes.

It was appropriate for the trip.

Here I was visiting Rosslyn Chapel, a fascinating medieval chapel wrapped in "Da Vinci Code" lore, the legendary hiding place of the Holy Grail and other treasures, reading a book about the modern-day holy grail: the secret of how to innovate and be creative.

Everybody wants the secret. For an industry like I'm in, the mainstream media with its troubled papers, innovation is a magic elixir, the sword in the stone, the philosopher's stone. Our modern-day fascination with innovation is almost medieval in its mysticism. Seers and stars abound as do fakers and shames.

The actual secret of innovation often seems the province of a secret order like a modern day Knights Templar or maybe imparted by being crowned upon the "Stone of Destiny," which I also saw at Edinburgh Castle. Held to be the stone pillow of Jacob in the Bible, it's an unassuming block of sandstone for all its imbued magical powers.

These are the mysteries explored by Berkun, who worked on the Internet Explorer team for Microsoft during the "browser wars" of the late 1990s and now is a consultant and writer and teacher of creative thinking at Washington University.

While exploring the myths of innovation, he comes up with least 10 "big ideas" about the nature of what innovation is (or is not):

  • It rarely happens as an epiphany.
  • Its history is not a straight time line of progress.
  • There is no playbook or regime for success.
  • For many reasons, good ideas aren't often welcome.
  • The lone inventor is rare and innovators are often competing groups working on the same problem
  • Good ideas abound -- everybody has them.
  • Managers have no clue of what to do (that took a chapter?).
  • The best ideas don't always win.
  • It's not the chance encounter; it's what you do with it.
  • Innovations can be -- and most often are -- good and evil.

Beyond my simplifications, there are a wealth of stories and facts and observations about innovations -- and how they happen -- in the book from the wheel to Craigslist. He does provide ample clues to finding the secrets to successfully innovating.

Worth reading, even if you're not on vacation.

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