The Top 3 Myths of Innovation—Debunked

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Originals" by Adam Grant. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the most common myths of innovation? How does buying into these myths hamper business innovation?

Because it’s so difficult to structure and do on-demand, innovation comes with its fair share of myths. Businesses must break free of these misconceptions if they aspire to revolutionize their respective markets.

Here are three top myths about innovation, according to organizational psychologist Adam Grant.

Innovation: Myths and Misconceptions

Innovation has never been as pressing as it is today—modern markets are saturated and competition is fierce. But as the need for innovation increases, so do the myths and misconceptions about it. Below are three top myths of innovation, debunked.

Myth 1: Procrastination Is Bad

The first myth of innovation is that procrastination is a bad thing. The consensus around productivity states that procrastinating is a disease that should be stamped out, that we should always plan our work on timelines and get a head start. 

But procrastination is useful to avoid too early of a commitment to an idea. If you lodge a problem in the back of your mind and give it time to marinate, you attack it from a variety of angles. You consider it in relaxed states, free from time pressure, which allows divergent thinking (hence the pattern of coming up with best ideas in the shower or on the toilet). You make incremental progress by testing and refining different possibilities.

By procrastinating, you also allow for greater input from your colleagues. If you decide early and set a strict timeline, there’s little strategic flexibility. 

Then, as you near the deadline, you assemble the breadth of options you’ve considered, and then you can then focus down on the best one.

Importantly, for procrastination to have these creative benefits, you need to be intrinsically motivated to solve the problem. Procrastinating when you hate the problem and feel little urge to solve it likely doesn’t end up with better ideas.

Myth 2: The First-Mover Advantage

An entrepreneurial myth is that the first mover will seize the spoils. Businesses that move first should seize brand recognition, gain size quickly, and ward off new entrants. The myth is also confounded by its truth in select industries, like patent filing priority and academic publications, both requiring novelty. 

The data suggest otherwise – “pioneer” companies failed at a rate of 47%, compared to “settler” companies at 8%. Furthermore, pioneers captured just 10% of the market share, compared to 28% for settlers. (Shortform note: To be specific, from the original paper, failure means the end of sales for a product. It wasn’t clear if the market share was only for surviving pioneers, or also included failed pioneers (thus counting as 0% share).)

Settler companies benefit from the path that pioneers pave, by:

  • Improving upon the technology of pioneers. Settlers often don’t just imitate the pioneer – they introduce something novel that causes customers to switch over. Instead of exploring broadly about what the customer wants, the settler can focus more narrowly how to provide superior quality and value.
  • Being able to strike when the timing is right. Pioneers introduce a new concept, but the world may not yet be ready for it. Settlers can nurture that same concept and unleash it when the conditions are more hospitable.
  • Avoiding the overcommitment of pioneers. With no one to guide them and the first-mover-advantage myth propelling them, pioneers are tempted to overextend to seize market share and ward off new entrants. However, this can cause them to overestimate the market and prematurely optimize, eventually leading to death. 
  • Avoiding getting entrenched in the status quo and responding better to shifting customer preferences.

Further, the types of people that start pioneer vs settler companies may differ. Pioneer founders may tend to be excessively risk-seeking and impulsive. Risk-controlling entrepreneurs may have better chances (remember from Chapter 1 how many famous founders started their companies while employed in their day job?)

Notable exceptions to this are businesses that are protected from new entrants by patents, and businesses that benefit from network effects. (Shortform note: But remember that even Facebook was a latecomer to the social network scene, toppling earlier Myspace and Friendster.)

Myth 3: Innovation Is the Prerogative of Youth

Is it impossible to innovate at older ages? Grant argues, it depends on what type of innovation you practice.

Innovation seems to happen in two modes: conceptual and experimental. 

Conceptual innovators resemble the stereotypical brilliant young mathematician, who comes up with a groundbreaking insight. Conceptual innovation tends to happen earlier in age since the youngster is unfettered by custom and dogma. They have fresh perspectives. However, age becomes a curse. As this person gains experience, her thinking becomes more codified. She becomes part of the establishment, unable to regain the plastic radicalism of her youth. Einstein opposed the new disruptive theory of quantum mechanics in his later age. 

Experimental innovators instead solve problems through trial and error, tweaking continuously and improving. Instead of setting out on a single plan, experimenters have no end goal in mind, and may stumble on great ideas. This benefits from time, since you’re able to generate a greater count of ideas and experiments as you age. (This echoes Adam Grant’s earlier point about coming up with great ideas by generating more ideas prolifically.)

Experimental innovators are more likely to continue innovating at older ages. 

The Top 3 Myths of Innovation—Debunked

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  • How to generate innovative ideas
  • Why quantity is the key to quality
  • How rules can inhibit a child's originality

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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