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Why Smart People Don't Try to Innovate

Innovation gets touted as the answer for everything from corporate ambition to national competitiveness. It's said to be the magic ingredient in giving a country a global edge. It's considered vital to winning customers and maintaining profit margins. And yet, it may be among the most misunderstood concepts in business today.

When somebody says "innovation," do you envision a dripping Archimedes shouting "Eureka!" or a light bulb gleaming over a brooding inventor's head? If so, put on a dunce cap. These common images give entirely the wrong idea about what innovation is and where it comes from, according to Scott Berkun, author of "The Myths of Innovation" (O'Reilly Media), a book originally published in 2007 and just out in a new, expanded paperback.

"Most people only know 30-second versions of success stories, and use that as their guide for how to develop ideas," Berkun says. "Movies and legends focus on magic moments and flashes of insight, but rarely explain the work involved in getting to that moment, or what happens after."

One of Berkun's points here is that Archimedes' sudden understanding of how to determine an object's density didn't just come to him one day while he was soaping up. It came to him after he had spent a great deal of time and energy trying to figure out various ways of solving the problem. If not for the hours and days of work before his historic bath, the famous legend of Archimedes would not be with us today.

The same, Berkun says, is true of most innovations: They rarely result from sudden flashes of insight and, when they do, it only happens after long and often grueling explorations and studies. That is a problem, according to Berkun. "Most of the corporate world is obsessed with innovation, without understanding what the word means, or how innovators of the past, even the recent past, achieved what they did," he argues. "This is incredibly dangerous and prone to failure."

Just as bad is the lack of understanding about what happens post-innovation. It's easier to come up with good ideas than to recognize them and know how to make the most of them. The business graveyard is littered with the corpses of enterprises that pioneered world-changing innovations but failed to effectively market them, just to give one example.

Perhaps the biggest failure of innovation today is that the term is so widely used that it has become meaningless. "It's typical for a VP to proclaim that innovation is important, but then reject every single new idea he or she hears," Berkun says. "New ideas are scary, but saying the word innovation is very safe and easy. People can talk about innovation all they want, and give budgets to research teams, but if there is a fear of change, or a lack of patience in allowing new ideas to develop, things will stay exactly as they are -- which is the opposite of what most people imagine innovation to be."

So let's say you really want a big sack of innovation. What to do? "Don't use the word," Berkun says. "Really, don't say it. Pick a problem to solve and get started solving it. Innovation is best seen as an outcome -- If you do a great job, people will call your work innovative. But to obsess about that from the beginning can only shoot yourself in the foot. If you pick a hard problem, an important problem, you'll be forced to be creative."

Mark Henricks has reported on business, technology and other topics for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, and other leading publications. Follow him on Twitter @bizmyths.
Image courtesy of Flickr user A Askew, CC2.0

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