Book Review: Breakthrough

I just finished reading Breakthrough: Stories and Strategies of Radical Innovation by Mark and Barbara Stefik, which is built from many interviews of successful innovators at famous research labs like Bell, PARC, and MIT’s Media Lab.

The book provides some interesting stories about how innovation works. However, rather than the author’s synthesis of the material (although it is sometimes insightful), what I found most interesting was just good quotes from really smart people on the nature of innovation.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Chuck Thacker was quoted as saying:

You can’t build railroads before it is railroad time.

What a cool sound-bite! My interpretation is that sometimes the pieces you need to get somewhere don’t yet exist, and you can’t force it to come together without it. Railroads needed a steam engine to be feasible. If the algorithm or market necessary for your super-cool idea to flourish doesn’t yet exist, it may not yet be railroad time no matter how hard you try.

Allan Newell:

People think that science is riskier than it actually is. If you take a group of smart people and send them down some path, they generally come back with something interesting.

In the context of start-up culture, this could imply that it may be more important just to collect a group of inspired hackers and set them loose rather than have some kind of methodical plan for what you want them to do. You may know that no matter what project Hacker X works on, it will end up being cool.

Walter Bishop Jr. (a jazz musician):

Once you’ve created your own sound and you have agood sense of the history of the music, then you think of where the music hasn’t gone and where it can go — and that’s innovation.

This is exactly what start-ups do, they are typically exploring the fringe of what is possible. To do so, you have to understand what has been possible in the past, and what the emerging tools of new technology are making feasible that wasn’t before. And among those things that are newly feasible, which are the most compelling or interesting that could potentially create monetary value?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>