The Art of Discovering: An Interview with Scott Berkun

By Liz Danzico

April 18, 2008

We all know the story: Isaac Newton discovered gravity—one of the more important innovations in all of history—because of a chance encounter with an apple tree. We know this, and many stories like it, because it inspires us. Stories of discovery give us hope that innovation can come in a flash, that eureka moment when disparate pieces fall easily into place. But the reality is that the Newton story, and many like it, are just myths. Innovation doesn't happen that way at all, in fact.

Enter Scott Berkun. Berkun has been writing about design and innovation on his website for close to a decade. His first book, The Art of Project Management (reissued as Making Things Happen), helped design-minded individuals think about how to structure a well-run project. In his follow-up, The Myths of Innovation (O'Reilly), he took on an even bigger challenge: to debunk those pervasive tall tales of inspiration's origins.

Berkun's own innovations have included managing the development of internet products at Microsoft. Recently, we caught up to talk about myths, discoveries and the art of having an idea.

Danzico: Tell me about the inspiration for The Myths of Innovation.

Berkun: Well, I had this magic moment when a bolt of lightning came from the sky and... just kidding. The ideas in the book were with me for a long time. Over the course of my career, I discovered that many of the things I'd learned as a student—about how creative people work and turn ideas into things—weren't true. And when I quit my job at Microsoft to write books, it was a natural topic to write about. Most books on innovation are so full of hype and pet theories that I was certain that people wanted to be inspired by true stories and the insights that come from them.

Danzico: How did your role at Microsoft influence the way you think about innovation?

Berkun: I had a wonderful five or six years working on Internet Explorer 1.0 to 5.0. I was a young team-lead with good managers and peers and a huge set of responsibilities for what was, at the time, one of the most important products in the industry. I got to experience first-hand all the challenges, frustrations and rewards of working with ideas all day. There was a ton experience compressed into those years, and I was exposed to many perspectives on how things in the world get made.

Danzico: What does innovation mean to you?

Berkun: “Innovation” is a buzzword. Often the word means nothing—crammed in press releases or as one of several vague adjectives used to describe a not-so-innovative product. I think most people would say that innovation means “good” or “new” or “new and good,” but I doubt it's a word used by most people in everyday conversation: “Hi, Sally. How was school today? Did you innovate?”

The paradox is that instead of focusing on what people want—good products that look good, work well, are reliable and reasonably priced—many corporations insist on advertising abstractions. Why do that if your product is good?

Danzico: What's your favorite example of a theory or myth that your book was able to debunk?

Berkun: There are too many! If you told me you'd torture puppies until I picked one, single, specific myth, I'd have to say it's the attack on history in Chapter Two. We really don't know much about why things happen, certainly not with the certainty we're told as school children.

If someone says, “I want to innovate! I want to make the world better!” they have to realize that the simple tales we're told don't tell us much about how it feels to make history. All histories are stories, and all stories, since they can never represent all valuable perspectives, have serious limitations. Designers and anyone working to make the future should read Chapter Two and rethink their assumptions about how the future gets made.

Danzico: We strive to be more innovative—or our companies encourage us to strive. Companies hold offsites to inspire collaboration; Human Resources requires dress-down days so we can feel more creative; business journals give us “10 easy steps to being innovative.” Do these things help inspire people? Can we have intentional epiphanies?

Berkun: If a boss wants to inspire innovation, all he or she has to do is reward people who have the courage to propose ideas, even when they're ideas the boss doesn't like or are better than the boss' ideas. If a boss says, “Yes, we will fund that idea,” or “If you can prototype it, we'll present it to upper management,” that's all the inspiration most human beings will ever need.

Casual Fridays, innovation offsites or giving people copies of Who Moved My Cheese are all nice things, but have zero direct impact on creativity in the workplace. It's the behavior of leaders and managers that determines how innovative a group is, and most of what enables creativity is entirely free. You can spend a zillion dollars on creativity efforts, but if the basic behavior of managers doesn't change, you're wasting your money.

Danzico: How does the behavior of our leaders and managers need to change, then? What kind of behavior has been productive in your experience?

Berkun: First, say what you mean and do what you say. Predictability is huge. It saves time. It helps people focus on the work instead of managing their manager. Second, build trust. To protect people, look out for them, work in the best interest, and make sure they know when their best interest and the project's or the team's are in conflict.

These seem like basic things, and they are. But there's no sense in trying to be Grand Master of Managing Super Breakthroughs if you can't do a Version 12.0 release of a boring, old website without the entire team hating your guts and burning you in effigy. The basics always matter.

Danzico: We've all probably seen our own super-breakthrough ideas done faster and better by someone else. Sometimes done not so well. Does the first or the best idea win? How do plausible ideas get hatched?

Berkun: Sometimes the first idea does win. QWERTY keyboards and English measurements in the United States are good examples. They were around early and gained dominance so fast that newer alternatives were ignored.

The path that ideas have to take to get from a sketch on a napkin to a thing in popular use is complex and unpredictable. Politics, business, market timing and social factors all come into play along the way and can derail what most would agree are good ideas or support what most would think are bad ideas. Much of the book explores the path ideas take and why these complexities are often overlooked.

Danzico: So if there's no magic bullet to creativity, there must be paths to get on the right track to creativity—you mention some in your book: “self-knowledge,” “growing,” and “size.” How can leaders and the people who work for them find these paths?

Berkun: Know thyself. Creativity hinges on being yourself and allowing your unique set of experiences come out in your work. This is very hard to do if you don't know what your own opinions are or you are uncomfortable expressing them. So get a journal and write or sketch or doodle in it every day. Have a place that is safe from anyone else's criticism and spend time there. See what you do when no one is watching. Explore and experiment there.

Danzico: Everyone knows a famous story about a flash of brilliance—a eureka moment when innovation happened. Where can designers look for an “ah-ha” moment?

Berkun: I do think moments of brilliance happen. It's just that if you look at the history of creativity, these moments are overrated. You can't put them in a box and take them out whenever you want. When they do occur, it's almost always after long hours of working at the same problem. Even when they do occur, there are often long hours of less exciting work that still needs to be done to bring the idea to the world. You can be creative and famous without ever having a singular, jaw-dropping, orgasmically mind-blowing magic moment.

Danzico: In your book you point out that “developing new ideas requires questions and approaches that most people won't understand initially, which leaves many true innovators at risk of becoming lonely, misunderstood characters.” Who do you think are today's misunderstood characters?

Berkun: Even creators of the past are largely misunderstood. Van Gogh is remembered more for his ear than his amazing passions for life. Einstein is an icon for intellectual brilliance, yet his greatest contributions regard the importance of the imagination over logic and the risks of our techno-centric culture. Jesus, Gandhi, Thoreau and Martin Luther King were all peaceful innovators, yet many of their followers regularly betray their heroes' ideals.

Danzico: Who should we be paying attention to that we might otherwise miss?

Berkun: If I picked just one, the folks at the Clock of the Long Now deserve way more attention than they get. It's only when we take a longer view that we see the significance, or insignificance, of the things we're worried about in the moment.