Monday, June 11, 2007

Book Review: "The Myths of Innovation" by Scott Berkun

Have you ever been to a party and met someone with a great job and a great sense of humor and ended up spending the entire party drinking beer and swapping interesting stories? That's what Scott Berkun's new book, "The Myths of Innovation", felt like to me. There are lots of books on my shelf that I know I ought to read, and many of them I struggle through and afterwards feel like it was a valuable investment of my time, however painful. This wasn't one of them - this is one of those rare books that feels like reading for pleasure, and yet you learn something along the way.

And I might add that the colophon alone is worth the price of the book (a sentence that perhaps has never been written).

I wonder how much time and research Berkun did on this book before he came up with the idea of orienting the book around myths? Was that the idea all along? Or did it emerge over time? Because it turns out to be a perfect way of presenting the material. First, everyone loves to feel like they know something that other people don't - the truth behind the myths. This "peeking behind the curtain" approach is a great way to keep the material interesting. Second, innovation is such a complex area that it would be very difficult to write a book about what innovation is -- it's a lot easier to talk about what it isn't. But by providing the boundaries via the myths, it inevitably provides great insight into how innovation really happens. And third, myth debunking seems to fit Berkun's auctorial voice. His casual, conversational tone is not only funny and engaging, but it naturally allows the type of speculation and interpretation that is necessary for the topic. In other words, a textbook-style examination of innovation would be a very poor choice.

While I enjoyed the entire book, I particularly enjoyed in the section on the myth of "the best idea wins". In it, Berkun describes the many factors that are involved in whether an innovation succeeds, and how being the "best" is only one of many factors. When it comes to design innovation in established software, the impact of "dominant design" is always a challenge - what is the cost of moving to something better when you have a large customer base who already knows how to use the product? One example in the book is the QWERTY keyboard that we all know and loathe. But to lesser degree this is always the case - I can't convince my wife to move from Paint to Photoshop for editing pictures because she knows how to use Paint. Whenever I try to tell her about how many great features there are in Photoshop, all she hears is "blah... blah... blah... [it will take lots of time to learn]... blah... blah... blah."

I recommend this book highly to anyone who has a job where innovation matters... which is just about everyone.

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