Steven Johnson and Scott Berkun on innovation

October 15th, 2010 § 4 comments

Update: I’ve embedded a second video about The Myths of Innovation (thanks to a tip from Scott Berkun) and added a link to a related Q&A published on Berkun’s blog.

“Innovation”  is probably one of the most — if not the most — overused words you’ll read or hear on The Interwebs.

Despite how commonly it’s thrown around, there is still value in discussing innovation if you can avoid the silliness. Below are two people well worth listening to when they discuss this topic: Steven Johnson and Scott Berkun.

Steven Johnson and “Where Good Ideas Come From”

In late September, TED posted video of a July talk by Steven Johnson (embedded below).

Watch the video on TED.com

I’d been eagerly anticipating his book by the same name, Where Good Ideas Come From, so I watched the above TED talk, an animated summary (embedded below) and awaited the book’s release. Then I read that Johnson would be speaking at Politics and Prose in DC as part of a book tour, so I jumped at the chance to attend.

What I appreciate about Johnson’s approach is not that he claims to be selling some secret sauce, but instead reverse-engineers important innovations.

Based on my live tweets, below are notes from the event (in chronological order, edited for clarity and with some links added):

  • Johnson worked on the new book deliberately for four years. He started thinking about origin of ideas when writing Ghost Map.
  • He looked both at the places and environments that bred human and biological innovation, respectively.
  • He found seven recurring patterns in the innovations he explores, which became the chapters and helped structure the book. [Patterns/chapters: The Adjacent Possible, Liquid Networks, The Slow Hunch, Serendipity, Error, Exaptation, Platforms)
  • In all these moments of inspiration, it usually happens slower than we assume; involves borrowing and remixing ideas.
  • We have a desire to tell inspirations as moments of insight — the “eureka” moment. But often that’s not the case.
  • One man read Darwin’s commonplace book and found that theory of evolution wasn’t just a moment, but evolved over time. [read Johnson’s post, The Glass Box and The Commonplace Book, which inspired the name of my Tumblr. Fred Wilson sees his Tumblr as one too.]
  • He found that innovative individuals have many loose ties to other areas — and hobbies. “Chance favors the connected mind.”
  • Question about the role of the sub-conscious. Answer: It’s not that the dream is expressing something, but that dreams help explore possible connections.
  • Me: Audible gasps when delivered big reveal in story about how GPS was born.
  • Me: Fascinating to hear about how ideas and slow hunches led to several of ‘s books. I’m always intrigued by such inspirations.
  • When profit motive causes people to close or protect ideas, you diminish ability to connect them with other ideas.
  • Musicians explore “adjacent possible” when Brian Eno has them play other instruments before recording the album.
  • Co-working spaces can foster innovation bc they bring people together, but not too structured or too unstructured.
  • Stewart Brand wrote “How Buildings Learn” — ability to change and adapt space is important.
  • In the recent past, we tended towards specialization. We’re moving back to being more interdisciplinary — we need to.
  • He disagrees with Nicholas Carr’s assertion and says that books are important not because of focus, but because of the ability to connect with distant ideas.

Scott Berkun and “The Myths of Innovation”

Thanks to a tweet from Mark Briggs, I participated in a webcast by Scott Berkun earlier this week called The Myths of Innovation: Remixed and Remastered. The webcast — and Q&A published on Berkun’s blog — was timed to coincide with the release of the paperback/updated version of his book.

View an overview of The Myths of Innovation on YouTube

View a Carnegie Mellon lecture on the The Myths of Innovation on YouTube

I’ll be sure to link the webcast replay when it’s available (also, check out The Top 10 Innovation Myths slideshow). For now, my live tweets from the webcast are below (in chronological order, edited for clarity and with some links added):

  • “Best thing since sliced bread” phrase refers to innovation not of just that, but that PLUS auto-wrapping to keep the bread fresh.
  • Avoid using: fundamental change, transformative, revolutionary, breakthrough, innovative, game-changing, out-of-the-box.
  • When he hears those words/phrases, he challenges the speaker to explain why something is being described as such.
  • You should worry about clear communication first, not “innovation.” “Don’t use it, you don’t need it.”
  • Innovation means significant positive change. It’s an outcome, not something you do as a daily activity.
  • Facts from @berkun: most products/companies suck, good products are rare, start with being consistently good, good is hard enough.
  • Occam’s Razor principle: if you have two solutions to a problem, the simplest one is probably the best.
  • “Big ideas look weird in the present.” The solution: learn to recognize and appreciate — don’t reject — weird ideas.
  • “Innovation is often best measured in relative fashion,” he says. “For any invention, there are multiple views on the value.”
  • Views of innovation: What you think, the person who buys thinks, makers think, the market thinks, historians will think.
  • “Creativity is a kind of work” that comes from effort, experience, etc. [It’s not magic.]
  • Edison’s research lab was innovative because it created an environment for experimentation
  • “No idea in the world was achieved successfully on the first try” (via @followsprocess, see original)
  • Interesting juxtaposition: Edison’s lab shows tools and messiness vs. Apple stores make products seem like magic.
  • Things that are rare: teams that trust each other, leaders willing to take risks, people who value interesting mistakes
  • To increase goodness: make team smaller, give it more authority, increase trust & cover fire, choose adventurous people.
  • Keep an idea journal — even w/ weird ones — and come back to those later, you never know when they might be valuable.

Weigh in: What are some other valuable resources have changed your thinking or inspired you on the topic of innovation?

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