Scott Berkun: Failure is the father of Innovation
Scott Berkun is interested in innovation―the conditions that produce it, the myths that surround it, and the real story behind the people who have been good at it. And so you might find it ironic that Berkun’
Berkun spent nine years at the world’
Berkun grew up in the Queens section of New York City and studied computer science, among other things, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He now lives “somewhere in the woods outside of Seattle.”
- You were at Microsoft from 1994 to 2003. What was it like to work there and how did that get you thinking about innovation?
I was very lucky. I was 22 years old when I started and I had not had that much other work experience, certainly not in the software industry. It was especially valuable seeing how work gets done and how ideas get developed. For the first five or six years, I felt like there was no other place in the world that I would rather be. I got to work on Internet Explorer from 1995 through 2000―a key project that would play a key role in where the industry was headed. I had a great first-hand view of both how to do this kind of work well, and how to do it really badly―because both of those things happened.
- What was it like to be at Microsoft back then?
One of the interesting things about the history of innovation is how ordinary it can seem at the time. It is often a bunch of guys in a room, having fun debating and experimenting and working really hard―and eventually something good comes out of it. The story at Microsoft was no different. When I worked on Internet Explorer 1.
0, there were maybe 12 to 15 people on the team: engineers, testers, and a couple of project managers. By Microsoft standards, that was a small team. If you had walked in on us, you would have thought this was some fledgling little side project, because in the beginning, that’ s what it was. Back in 1995 when the project started, browsers were wholly unimportant to Microsoft.
That lasted for the first six months I worked on it. Then Netscape took off and had their IPO, and the world changed and the project team became the strategic project, and now we had resources and more attention from executives. The project team got bigger and the pace got faster. But even then, this was still a bunch of smart people who worked hard, had fun, and tried to make something good.
- So what did you learn?
For one thing, we worked fast, producing a new release of the browser every three or four months. That meant doing very quick cycles of customer research, prototyping and exploration, developing specifications, engineering it, testing it, and shipping it. Those quick cycles gave me a lot experience for what worked well and what didn’
t. The most important thing was the cycle itself: coming up with ideas, trying them out, releasing them and seeing what happened. For anyone who wants to invent something, to be an innovator, actually participating in that cycle is very important. You should actually create something, give it to people and watch what happens. Yes, there is plenty to read about in books, including mine, but that knowledge has to be grounded in actual experience.
So the most important lesson from my days at Microsoft was the importance of experimentation. In order for you to develop any idea, no matter how smart you are, you should do lots and lots of experimenting. Don’
t fall in love with your idea. If you spend your time defending it, you will fail. The best inventors and creators throw lots of stuff away. They know it’ s going to take lots of iterations to make something that’ s really good. And they know that every time they try again, they are going to make it a little bit better. The willingness to fail and try again is the mark of a creative person. They are not expecting to get it right the first time.
Eric Spool, who researches user interfaces, pointed out that on the same day Apple announced the iPhone, the company also formally announced Apple TV. The first was a terrific success, the second much less so. He said that the reasons were less important than that Apple’
s corporate culture permitted both.
People usually think of “innovation”
―a much overused term―as some big leap forward. But big leaps require big risks, and you can’ t possibly predict how things are going to play out in the marketplace when you release a new product. There’ s no innovative company, including Apple, that hasn’ t had some big flops, too. If you are going to be ambitious and take risks, that means no matter how brilliant you are, you are going to miss some things. Apple has had plenty of failures―the Newton immediately comes to mind. Even Google has had some: Gmail has not been what they hoped it would be in terms of market share percentage―at least yet. Failures indicate that a manager is taking risks. If you never fail, you aren’ t risking enough.
ve said that genius seldom strikes twice―that Twitter probably won’ t invent the next Twitter.
Part of what I learned at Microsoft is that success is partially determined by so many factors beyond your control. Nobody likes to admit it, but luck plays a big role. The factors that come into play that make Twitter and Facebook successes depends on factors that no individual person or company controls. So the odds of any one company ever having a billion dollar business are ridiculously small. And yet, at least in America, we endlessly obsess about trying to find the next one. And the odds are even slimmer that a company with a billion dollar business will find a second billion dollar business. It has happened, of course. Microsoft has two major revenue streams―Office and Windows. But that’
s rare. Google has one―online advertising―and they are still searching for another. Few companies have highly diversified revenue streams because even one brilliantly successful revenue stream is so hard to find.
How do your ideas about innovation and breakthrough scale down to people working at the group or project level, or for entrepreneurs working on their own?
The skill set is the same. I taught a course at the University of Washington on creative thinking, where we looked at the literature about creativity―and it turns out there are just a few things that you need to know. The first is that everyone is a creator. We have ideas all the time. If you watch a child play, they invent worlds and stories―we are just naturally inventive and it’
s true even for us as adults. It’ s just that we’ ve been trained to repress them.
Number two is you have to have a place in your life where you can safely have ideas without people critiquing them. In the course I taught, I made everyone keep a journal of ideas―a safe place that nobody else would look at. I told them to write down any idea they had in their head at any time. Whether at work or at dinner, no matter how good, bad or strange the idea seems at the time: write it down. It could be about a different way to do a project at work or a recipe for dinner. It could be about almost anything. At the very least, you now have a repository of ideas that proves beyond doubt that you are a creative person. When you can go back later and flip through it, you’
ll see that some ideas are in fact weird or even embarrassing. But other ideas will look more promising. You’ ll say to yourself: “I should really try this out.” I think that this continuing documentation is a basic habit of creative people.
Trying your ideas out, experimenting, is the third part of innovation. You need to make the time, to take a half hour out of your day. You know the experiment might not work, but you are not betting your job on it. Do it once a week―take your best idea and spend a half hour seeing where it goes. If you do that, you’
re following the patterns that DaVinci and Van Gogh followed. Believe in your own creativity, record your ideas, and once in a while, follow an idea and see where it goes, being comfortable that it might not go anywhere. That’ s it―that’ s the whole thing.
- Internet Explorer now has some competitors: Mozilla Firefox, Opera and Google’
s Chrome, among them. What’ s your take on browser innovation?
Browsers have become so successful that they’
re boring. We knew this was going to happen even when we worked on Internet Explorer. The browser is sort of like the frame around your television―it’ s there, but nobody buys a TV because of it. That probably happened around 2000 when the web became a dominant force for people’ s interaction with media. At that point, the browser was a secondary thing, as it should be. If I was an innovator right now, wanting to do a startup, browser innovation is not where I’ d look.
- Where would you look?
m not looking to do a startup, so I’ m not sure. But I’ d keep this in mind: when people think about innovation on the Web, they sometimes get hung up on trying to be brilliant. They think that whatever they come up with has to be dazzling, and that’ s nonsense. If you want to be successful, you need to pick a spot, study what people are doing already, and look for ways you can do it better. Not brilliantly better, just slightly better―a five percent improvement may be all you need to beat the competition. Most products and most websites out there fail in fairly basic fundamental ways. They don’ t get the basics right―the fundamental user experience. That’ s where I would start. Then I’ d start sketching and prototyping and I’ d follow my lead as to which things I can improve upon, and that’ s where I would go. You don’ t need a radical new idea. It’ s so rare in the history of innovation that the successful product was radically better. Usually it’ s somewhat better, or it’ s better in the right way. Radically better products are very rare.
ve written about creative geniuses like DaVinci, but your own background is in group development. Who is in a better position to innovate: individuals or teams?
s always individuals because individuals need fewer approvals. That’ s especially true for Web developers. As an individual designer, I can create a site, put it up on the Web, and see what happens. A lot of great Web sites started that way―the seed of an idea came from one person or a small group of friends. That advantage will remain true as long as the Web is free. There’ s no way a company can compete with that kind of freedom. Where companies do have an advantage is after a Web site develops an audience. Companies are then in the best position to add resources: expand the site and give it additional server and marketing support.
- You advise managers to hire a staff who are passionate about experimentation―but then managers should get out of the way.
Managers often talk about hiring people who are entrepreneurial, passionate and not afraid of failing. But that’
s not always who gets hired. For example, the people you are looking for may not have perfect grades in college. They may have failed at something―but that failure may be more interesting than a string of safe successes. Innovation is about taking risks. Someone who has perfect grades is not demonstrating a tolerance for risk. That’ s not to say that having perfect grades is bad. And I’ ll admit here that my own grades weren’ t that good. But if a primary job criteria is being a risk taker and trying to break new ground, then perfect grades are not a good sign. It means the candidate has scored perfectly in someone else’ s system.
And once you’
ve hired these really smart, bright, motivated people, you need to step back a little bit. You don’ t want to let them do whatever they want, but you want to give them a lot of latitude to decide how the project should be shaped, as to what experiments they do. That has been true for every creative environment that I’ ve studied. At least in the past, Google exemplified this with their “20 percent time,” which allows engineers to work on projects outside their job description. They say: “we hired you because you’ re smart, and we know you know things that I as your boss don’ t know. You have ideas that I don’ t have, so I’ m going to give you some leverage to do stuff that I wouldn’ t suggest that you do.”
Managers in creative environments that continually produce creative, innovative ideas are managers who give leeway to their team. There are some exceptions―Steve Jobs is one of them―but by and large, managers set goals, get their teams to agree on them, then step back and try to give as much room to their creative people as possible.
- You say that grades aren’
t everything when you are hiring people. What about university degrees?
- Your next book is on public speaking. Is there is a connection between innovation and good communication?
Definitely. There are lots of good ideas that never took off because the person who invented it couldn’
t convince anyone their idea was good or interesting. Ideas don’ t take off just because of their brilliance, but because of the persuasive skills of the person who invented it. The importance of communication often gets overlooked. It gets trivialized as mere “selling” or “marketing.” But the ability to take an idea that people haven’ t seen before and bring it to life―to explain why it is valuable―is tremendously important. Often, good communication is the difference between a popular idea and one that is forgotten. If ever I taught a course on entrepreneurship, I would spend a lot of time on how to pitch ideas. You have an idea, you’ ve prototyped it: now go and convince your boss, your client, a potential investor.
It seems that in the U.
S., at least, colleges teach one skill or the other. If you are technical, schools don’ t worry too much if you can write or speak in public. And if you are majoring in the liberal arts, you learn about technology, but not how to do the serious work needed to be a technologist.
I totally agree. Universities are super specialized. There’
s a lot of pressure at many American colleges―I don’ t know what it’ s like in Japan―to specialize. Colleges believe that the more focused you are, the easier it is for you to find a career path or a job because you’ ll be a specialist.
But if you are going to do something interesting, creative and challenging, you need to be a communicator and a thinker―you need both of these things. If you are a computer science major, you should at least have a half-day workshop somewhere in your four year program about how to communicate your computer science ideas. It wouldn’
t take that long to give people at least a sense of it. In fact, this what technical people will actually face in the real world. If you are a programmer at Microsoft or Google, you are writing code. But at some point, you have to convince people of the value of your approach. In business, no matter who you are, you are trying to convince people all the time.
- Where does public speaking fit in?
m interested because this is what I do for a living now. When I quit Microsoft six years ago, my goal was to write books. It turns out that if you are going to write books, you end up having to talk about them and giving lectures. For six years now, I’ ve written books and done lectures to promote them, and if the books do well, I get paid to teach workshops based on them. This is a very unusual way to make a living. It’ s wonderful, but it’ s also very strange. So primarily, I wrote the book for people like me. More broadly, I think that public speaking is one of the most important skills in life: whether for sharing your ideas in front of a group, having a conversation among colleagues, or asking a girl out for a date.
The book is called “Confessions of a Public Speaker” because the goal of the book is not to lecture or list the five things you need to be a perfect speaker. Rather, it’
s a description of what I actually I think about when I’ m going to give a lecture in front of 200 people. It’ s probably what other people do as well but you won’ t find in their books because the truth is often is embarrassing or revealing. But I have no shame―I tell the truth.
American entrepreneurship, at least in the tech sector, has a lot of dropouts―Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard; Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College in Portland Oregon. And some entrepreneurs invented their companies while they were still in college, which meant they were doing something else besides just studying a conventional curriculum. Larry Page and Sergey Brin got the idea for Google from a research project they were doing at Stanford. Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook while he was at Harvard. As a rule, Silicon Valley companies figure that if you can finish your degree at Stanford or MIT or Cal Tech then you’