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The Myths of Innovation

12.31.07 | Permalink | Comment?

Curious ChapWelcome to 2008, and Happy New Year to all.

I just finished reading Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation. Scott does an excellent job of debunking a number of myths, explains how innovations are diffused, and describes the various obstacles that slow down their diffusion.

I won’t provide a thorough review — plenty of readers who are more qualified have already done so on Amazon. But I would like to share my two most important lessons from the book. The second lesson is the one that’s relevant to software development.

The Apple Didn’t Do It

The Myths of InnovationScott demonstrates how the popular media likes stories of epiphanies. An example is the apple that fell on Newton’s head, providing him with the crucial insight into gravity. Did an apple ever fall? Scott says that there is no proof. But more importantly, the story of the fallen apple makes no mention of the twenty years of research that Newton had done. An apple fell: poof! Newton gets his epiphany. Gravity is discovered!

Not so, baby. Behind every apparent epiphany are usually years of research and thinking. “Eureka moments” happen only after a person has spent a lot of time thinking.

The Importance of Incubation

Scott provides the insight that early research and development is typically followed by a period of incubation, a lull during which ideas sink in. This is something that I knew instinctively, but I am grateful to Scott Berkun for highlighting it. It is during those periods of incubation that Eureka moments typically strike, and they are a necessary part of the process of innovation.

I find that this applies to software development in a big way at the design stage. By design, I mean the process of developing the specs for the software and its user interface. After this is completed, it is important to let the design sit idle for a little bit while you keep pondering it. This allows time to think through real world situations and see if the planned design helps address them. A period of incubation is even more important if the design is for a new version where it is important to think about the problems that your customers had in the past and whether the new design helps. If your company has online forums, visit them and review the complaints that your customers took the time to write about.

If you have spent some time writing code and debugging, then you probably understand the importance of stepping back every once in a while. This is a form of incubation as well, although usually of much shorter duration. It happened frequently to me: I would be trying to fix a bug unsuccessfully. Then I leave the office and go home. My “Eureka moment” would sometimes come before I even get home (my commute is all of two miles). You have probably experienced something similar in the past as well.

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