Ten Questions with Scott Berkun, Author of “The Myths of Innovation”


Scott Berkun worked on the Internet explorer team at Microsoft from 1994-1999. He is the author of a recently released book called The Myths of Innovation. He also wrote the 2005 bestseller, The Art of Project Management. He teaches a graduate course in creative thinking at the University of Washington, runs the sacred places architecture tour at NYC’s GEL conference, and writes about innovation, design and management.

In his most recent book he explores (or, more accurately, “explodes”) the romantic notions of how innovation occurs. Join me in this Q and A session as he explains the real world of innovation.

  1. Question: How long does it take in the real world—as opposed to the world of
    retroactive journalism—for an “epiphany” to occur?

    Answer: An epiphany is the tip of the creative iceberg, and all epiphanies are grounded in work. If you take any magic moment of discovery from history and wander
    backwards in time you’ll find dozens of smaller observations, inquiries,
    mistakes, and comedies that occured to make the epiphany possible. All the
    great inventors knew this—and typically they downplayed the magic moments.
    But we all love exciting stories—Newton getting hit by an apple or people
    with chocolate and peanut butter colliding in hallways—are just more fun to
    think about. A movie called “watch Einstein stare at his chalkboard for 90
    minutes” wouldn’t go over well with most people.

  2. Question: Is progress towards innovation made in a straight line? For example,
    transistor to chip to personal computer to web to MySpace.

    Answer: Most people want history to explain how we got here, not to teach them how
    to change the future. To serve that end, popular histories are told in
    heroic, logical narratives: they made a transistor, which led to the chip,
    which create the possibility for the PC, and on it goes forever. But of
    course if you asked William Shockey (transistor) or Steve Wozniak (PC) how
    obvious their ideas and successes were, you’ll hear very different stories
    about chaos, uncertainty and feeling the odds were against them.

    If we
    believe things are uncertain for innovators in the present, we have to
    remember things were just as uncertain for people in the past. That’s a big
    goal of the book: to use amazing tales of innovation history as tools for
    those trying to do it now.

  3. Question: Are innovators born or made?

    Answer: Both. Take Mozart. Yes, he had an amazing capacity for musical composition, but he also was born in a country at the center of the music world, had a
    father who was a music teacher, and was forced to practice for hours every
    day before he started the equivalent of kindergarten. I researched the
    history of many geniuses and creators and always find a wide range of
    factors, some under their control and some not, that made their achievements

  4. Question: What the toughest challenge that an innovator faces?

    Answer: It’s different for every innovator, but the one that crushes many is how
    bored the rest of the world was by their ideas. Finding support, whether
    emotional, financial, or intellectual, for a big new idea is very hard and
    depends on skills that have nothing to do with intellectual prowess or
    creative ability. That’s a killer for many would-be geniuses: they have to
    spend way more time persuading and convincing others as they do inventing,
    and they don’t have the skills or emotional endurance for it.

  5. Question: Where do inventors and innovators get their ideas?

    Answer: I teach a creative thinking course at the University of Washington, and the
    foundation is that ideas are combinations of other ideas. People who earn
    the label “creative” are really just people who come up with more
    combinations of ideas, find interesting ones faster, and are willing to try
    them out. The problem is most schools and
    organizations train us out of the habits.

  6. Question: Why do innovators face such rejection and negativity?

    Answer: It’s human nature—we protect ourselves from change. We like to think we’re
    progressive, but every wave of innovation has been much slower than we’re
    told. The telegraph, the telephone, the PC, and the internet all took decades
    to develop from ideas into things ordinary people used. As a species we’re
    threatened by change and it takes a long time to convince people to change
    their behavior, or part with their money.

  7. Question: How do you know if you have a seemingly stupid idea according to the
    “experts” that will succeed or a stupid idea that is truly stupid?

    Answer: Don’t shoot me, but the answer is we can’t know. Not for certain. That’s
    where all the fun and misery comes in. Many stupid ideas have been
    successful and many great ideas have died on the vine and that’s because
    success hinges on factors outside of our control.

    The best bet is to be an
    experimenter, a tinkerer—to learn to try out ideas cheaply and quickly and to
    get out there with people instead of fantasizing in ivory towers. Experience
    with real people trumps expert analysis much of the time. Innovation is a
    practice—a set of habits—and it involves making lots of mistakes and being
    willing to learn from them.

  8. Question: If you were a venture capitalist, what would your investment thesis be?

    Answer: Two parts: neither is original, but they borne out by history. One is
    portfolio. Invest knowing most ventures, even good ones, fail, and
    distribute risk on some spectrum (e.g. 1/3 very high risk, 1/3 high risk,
    1/3 moderate risk). Sometimes seemingly small, low risk/reward innovations
    have big impacts and it’s a mistake to only make big bets.

    The other idea is
    people: I’d invest in people more than ideas or business plans—though those
    are important of course. A great entrepreneur who won’t give up and will
    keep growing and learning is gold. It’s a tiny percentage of entrepreneurs
    who have any real success the first few times out—3M, Ford, Flickr were all
    second or third efforts. I’d also give millions of dollars to authors of recent
    books on innovation with the word Myth in the title. The future is really
    in their hands.

  9. Question: What are the primary determinants of the speed of adoption of innovation?

    Answer: The classic
    research on the topic is Diffusion of Innovation by Rogers, which defines
    factors that hold up well today. The surprise to us is that they’re all
    sociological: based on people’s perception of value and their fear of
    risks—which often has little to do with our view of how amazing a
    particular technology is. Smarter innovators know this and pay attention
    from day one to who they are designing for and how to design the website or
    product in a way that supports their feelings and beliefs.

  10. Question: What’s more important: problem definition or problem solving?

    Answer: Problem definition is definitely under-rated, but they’re both important.
    New ideas often come from asking new questions and being a creative
    question asker. We fixate on solutions and popular literature focuses on
    creative people as being solvers, but often the creativity is in
    reformulating a problem so that it’s easier to solve. Einstein and Edison
    were notorious problem definers: they defined the problem differently than
    everyone else and that’s what led to their success.

  11. Question: Why don’t the best ideas win?

    Answer: One reason is because the best idea doesn’t exist. Depending on your point
    of view, there’s a different best idea or best choice for a particular
    problem. I’m certain that they guys who made telegraphs didn’t think the
    telephone was all that good an idea, but it ended their livelihood. So many
    stories of progress gone wrong are about arrogance of perception: what one
    person thinks is the right path—often the path most profitable to them—
    isn’t what another, more influential group of people thought.

  12. Question: Is innovation more likely to come from young people or old people? Or is
    simply not a factor?

    Answer: Innovation is difficult, risky work, and the older you are, the greater the odds
    you’ll realize this is the case. That explanation works best. Beethoven didn’t write
    his nineth symphony until late in his life, so we know many creatives stay
    creative no matter how old they are. But their willingness to endure all the
    stresses and challenges of bringing an idea to the world diminishes. They
    understand the costs better from the life experience. The young don’t know
    what their is to fear, have stronger urges to prove themselves, and have
    fewer commitments—for example, children and mortgages. These factors that make it easier
    to try crazy things.

By |2016-10-24T14:20:08+00:00June 28th, 2007|Categories: Entrepreneurship, Events, Innovation|Tags: |33 Comments

About the Author:

Guy Kawasaki is the chief evangelist of Canva, an online graphic design tool. Formerly, he was an advisor to the Motorola business unit of Google and chief evangelist of Apple. He is also the author of The Art of Social Media, The Art of the Start, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, Enchantment, and nine other books. Kawasaki has a BA from Stanford University and an MBA from UCLA as well as an honorary doctorate from Babson College.


  1. Tammy Lenski June 28, 2007 at 8:28 am - Reply

    Guy, I really enjoyed reading this interview, thanks. As I read Scott’s comment about that “magic moment” in innovation, I was reminded of a quote attributed to Isaac Asimov:
    “…the most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but, ‘That’s funny…'”
    That thinking guides me a lot in my ADR work.

  2. Vijay Teach Me June 28, 2007 at 8:58 am - Reply

    Guy Thanks for the interview with Scott and going the extra mile(Questions).
    I had some doubt creep up time to time but the following questions cleared that fog for me
    3 Question: Are innovators born or made?
    10 Question: What’s more important: problem definition or problem solving?
    Employee To Entrepreneur

  3. Andy Wilson June 28, 2007 at 9:05 am - Reply

    Guy, The interview is great and it brings up a question that seems to underlie many VC-written blogs. Is there a perception, by the VC community, that technology and web innovation is more of a game for the younger 25-31 year old crowd? Is there a preconception that the older crowd is best at bringing in the discipline of product and company execution rather than being innovators themselves? Is there a point where the VC community says “she’s too old to be innovative?” Is the younger crowd more committed because they work so many hours or is just that they really don’t have a life yet? And finally, does the older crowd need to work the same hours to accomplish the same output or just to show commitment?

  4. John Robinson June 28, 2007 at 9:18 am - Reply

    A great interview. Many of the ideas discussed are supported by the work of James Burke, a British technology journalist who has investigated the causality of innovation and how there are very few “breakthroughs”. If you haven’t read any of Mr. Burke’s works, and are interested in how one thing builds on another until the Eureka moment, I would strongly recommend “The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made Carburetor Possible – and Other Journeys” and “Connections” – also check out http://www.palmersguide.com/jamesburke/.

  5. Rajesh Shakya June 28, 2007 at 10:16 am - Reply

    Interview about Innovations is great from the innovator himself. I recently wrote something on Innovation in my personal blog. I would request your attention here. I am not trying to spam though. Please read, if some of you are interested.
    Rajesh Shakya
    Helping Technopreneurs to Excel and Lead Their Life!

  6. PTRADES June 28, 2007 at 10:21 am - Reply

    yes, so true on the best ideas, capital, liquidity, etc. to go with innovative outside the box thinking

  7. iuri June 28, 2007 at 10:57 am - Reply

    Related to Q&A 12 (age), I saw yesterday this nice commercial (on YouTube) to get kids into engineering.

  8. Vijay Goel, M.D. June 28, 2007 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    Guy, great interview. Interesting to see you highlight someone from the M****S*** company you so loved while at Apple.
    This interview seems to tie in well with the ideas of Clay Christenson in his “Innovator’s Dilemma”.
    New technology develops in S curves, and the disruptive technology is initially lower margin, serves a different customer base, and fails against the key deciding factors for the existing market. (He uses the example of disk drives– mainframe users wanted capacity and the smaller size drive had lower capacity and was more expensive…but was a much better product for emerging desktop and laptop users).
    Once the disruptive technology has grown in other markets until it now meets the needs of the broad market (“good enough”), then the criteria of the marketplace change to favor the disruptive entrant. This may explain why Scott makes the comment that the “rest of the world was initially bored by the idea/product”. In that sense, it does truly start out inferior in the major markets.
    In my world (health) that implies using disruptive ideas (like the learnings of the consumer internet) to develop markets where insurance companies have no desire to roam. I’m curious why we haven’t seen many tech players in that space (and for those interested– I’m looking for some tech help in my venture to change how health works.)

  9. The Agitator June 28, 2007 at 4:27 pm - Reply

    How Does Innovation Occur?

    It’s Monday Mind Stretch time again.Here’s an interview, courtesy of Guy Kawasaki of Mac marketing fame, with Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation.Interesting points:Epiphanies or magic moments are really the culmination

  10. Jon June 28, 2007 at 8:28 pm - Reply

    The difference between insanity and creativity, or crazy and genius is simply perception. That homeless guy down the street can have the intellectual capacity equal to Einstein but didn’t have motivation/ambition or luck on their side.

  11. Brad Hutchings June 29, 2007 at 1:33 am - Reply

    Guy, a more philosophical treatment of several of his answers are given in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. The point about narrative fallacy is so important. We all want a nice story about how things happen, and so often, there is really no interesting story! Also, innovation can not be paced, and those who claim to be able to do it are liars ;-). I will definitely buy Señor Berkun’s book. Taleb’s book has consumed my brain and I need some light reading. But it is refreshing to see from the kinds of books coming out that we’re becoming wise about the creative process to match our enthusiasm.

  12. Brad Hutchings June 29, 2007 at 1:39 am - Reply

    P.S. Taleb is kinda French (well, actually Lebanese, but son of French citizens). I guess that would make him the hypothetical love child of Steve Jobs and Jean-Louis Gassée.

  13. Mario Ruiz June 29, 2007 at 2:13 am - Reply

    Guy, Guys,
    This is a great post or what. I find it enjoyable. The most important fact for me is how Scott underline the importance of hard-work after the idea.
    Tammy is remembering how Isaac is says ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!)is not that important but, ‘That’s funny…’ I would add, wow I found it, this is a lot of work ahead!
    Mario Ruiz

  14. Norman June 29, 2007 at 2:55 am - Reply

    Very nice interview, indeed! It was like talking to somebody up there (i wanted to use “God”). The views are very refreshing but of course, it would not have been delivered if the questions were not as brilliant. Good work!

  15. BrainBlog June 29, 2007 at 3:49 am - Reply

    It’s all about asking the right questions.

    “New ideas often come from asking new questions and being a creative question asker. We fixate on solutions and popular literature focuses on creative people as being solvers, but often the creativity is in reformulating a problem so that it’s…

  16. Roger Anderson June 29, 2007 at 10:38 am - Reply

    Michael Gerber wrote about the e-Myth. Now we have the i-Myth? It is almost i-ronic that it was written by a Microsofty.
    “Tammy – “That’s funny…” is my favorite Asimov quote. He was so right.

  17. Scott M. June 29, 2007 at 11:16 pm - Reply

    i really appreciate your blog. i stumbled upon it through a couple of other blogs and have been hooked since. this post is especially pertinent to my situation here in FL. i’m in the middle of starting a web design company for small businesses and churches, a mortgage lending company with a partner, and a “20somethings” ministry at my church. right now, i’m also reading “the art of the start” which, as you know, is helpful with starting all three. God bless you for your willingness to help us young guys get started by offering unfettered advice.

  18. Notes from Classy's Kitchen June 30, 2007 at 5:49 am - Reply

    Interview om “The Myths of Innovation”

    Lovende intro til selve bogen i Guy Kawasakis interview med Scott Berkun om dennes netop udgivne bog “The Myths of…

  19. John July 1, 2007 at 6:41 am - Reply

    I like your blog, it’s always fun to come back and check what you have to tell us today.

  20. Tom's blog July 1, 2007 at 10:45 am - Reply

    Stupid idea…or is it?

    In this interview with Scott Berkun, Guy Kawasaki posed an interesting question about innovative ideas. He asked simply, “How do you know if you have a seemingly stupid idea according to the “experts” that will succeed or a stupid idea

  21. Tom Coombs July 1, 2007 at 11:01 am - Reply

    Innovation is such an interesting process to watch from the inside. So few of us are lucky enough to have been present at a point where the light is finally switched on.
    I enjoyed reading this interview of someone else who has been through the mill on a number of occasions.

  22. Scott McArthur July 1, 2007 at 1:08 pm - Reply

    This is a facinating area and one that I have tried to understand it better for some time. Perhaps the most interesting notion in this area, for me, over the past few years was that so well described by the Heath brothers in “Made to Stick”. Their finding was that “Creativity starts with templates”. To me this was initially counter-intuitive but when you look at the evidence and then try it for yourself all becomes clear.

  23. James July 1, 2007 at 1:53 pm - Reply

    Don’t you think that bloggers should be less mindless and post on more meaningful things such as charity? America is in the toilet and you aren’t do your fair share to make it better. You are a journalist but not an activist. I would hate to be you.
    Consider making a difference and make your next blog entry on something worth caring about. How about suggesting to your readers your favorite charity. Maybe some of them will even contribute…

  24. PTC July 1, 2007 at 10:19 pm - Reply

    Good to read the post. Thanks.
    I would say, what makes an idea successful or failure is its execution than how advanced/innovative it is alone.

  25. TG July 2, 2007 at 6:50 am - Reply

    The young don’t know what their [sic] is to fear, have stronger urges to prove themselves, and have fewer commitments—for example, children and mortgages. These factors that make it easier to try crazy things.
    Actually, these traits can apply for older people also, especially fewer commitments: children (still living at home, that is) and mortgages (assuming they didn’t take on a econd mortgage to keep up with the Joneses).
    Some of the most refreshing people I know are open-minded older people who are therefore able to leverage their experience in new ways. They are not “elderly” by any means except numerically.
    And Frank Lloyd Wright did most of his legendary work after the age of 70.
    I’m just saying I hope I am more like Frank Lloyd Wright in terms of innovative thinking when I get older and not the sterotypical Fox News/Talk radio shut-in uber-grump. It’s a choice people can actively make. 🙂

  26. The Blogfather July 3, 2007 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    Guy Kawasaki on Innovation

    Guy Kawasaki at How to Change the World sits down for a Q&A session with Scott Berkun and discusses innovation. Guy Kawasaki is a venture capitalist who used to be the Macintosh evangelist for Apple. Scott Berkun was on the…

  27. Zach July 5, 2007 at 8:36 am - Reply

    my first time to your blog – definitely not the last…
    Really enjoyed some of the quotes – especially pertaining to hard work being the backdrop to ephiphanies. This is a concept that so often seems to be lost. Look forward to more articles and interviews.

  28. Usb flashdrive July 7, 2007 at 1:22 am - Reply

    Interesting article!

  29. JoJo Googolox July 7, 2007 at 7:06 pm - Reply

    definition is everything

  30. Marketing & Strategy Innovation Blog July 9, 2007 at 7:21 am - Reply

    Ten Questions with Scott Berkun, Author of “The Myths of Innovation”

    by: Guy KawasakiScott Berkun worked on the Internet explorer teamat Microsoft from 1994-1999. He is the author of a recently released book called The Myths of Innovation. He also wrote the 2005 bestseller, The Art of Project Management. He …

  31. Abhinav Sinha July 9, 2007 at 9:56 pm - Reply

    brilliant article!

  32. Arts of Innovation blog July 17, 2007 at 9:31 am - Reply

    Scott Berkun on innovation Id give his comments aB

    Former Microsoft innovator Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation, has some noteworthy observations about young geniuses and older experimenters in a recent interview in the How to Change the World blog from former…

  33. JayHamilton-Roth July 18, 2007 at 6:29 am - Reply

    Regarding innovation being a small, incremental process, here’s one of my favorite quotations from a classic martial arts text which likewise applies to innovation:
    “Without long practice one cannot suddenly understand it.”
    — from The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, by Lo, Inn, Amacker, and Foe

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