The Real Mother of Invention
The Six Steps to Business Innovation
by Building on the Ideas of Others
By David Kord Murray
Gotham; 293 pp.; $26 The author of Borrowing Brilliance, David Kord Murray, has an impressive résumé. Not only is he a rocket scientist who worked on numerous projects for NASA and the Pentagon but he's also a successful entrepreneur, having sold Taxnet, a company he co-founded that specializes in e-filing software, to H&R Block (HRB) in 2005. And in between those items on his CV is a strong hint that he practices what he preaches. When Murray was head of innovation at Intuit (INTU)—the creator of TurboTax, which allows users to e-file—he saw a brilliant idea, borrowed a chunk of it, and made a killing. His book encourages everyone to give it a try. After all, he argues, it worked for Johannes Gutenberg, George Lucas, and the Google guys.
Murray uses personal anecdotes and scores of examples to build the case that cherry-picking the ideas of others is a vital part of the research and development process. For instance, Google is heralded for borrowing concepts from library science to improve Web searches. Gutenberg's printing press borrowed from the gear used by winemakers and olive-oil producers. George Lucas? It's a longish list. Such nuggets spice up Murray's six steps, which start with defining the problem you want to solve, then searching for solutions used by others with similar problems, followed by a process of refining the material you gather.
As he lays out his method, he raises the stakes on innovative thinking. It's more than just a competitive advantage. These days it's a lifeline. "The need for innovation and creativity becomes more and more important as ... product and career life cycles become shorter," Murray writes.
In a sense, this book is an idea Murray borrowed from himself (and Intuit, again). In the early 2000s he was asked to create an innovation training program for the company. The goal: a clear, easy-to-replicate process for creative thinking. After studying hundreds of inventive thinkers, from Charles Darwin to Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs, he concluded that the quickest and most reliable path to invention is paved with appropriated ideas. That may not strike you as terribly original, but Murray's method involves mixing and matching the concepts of others, ideally from disparate fields, to arrive at something new.
Murray himself is a study in reinvention and, despite his résumé, failure. Back in 1999 he passed up a $25 million offer from GE Capital (GE) for the office-equipment financing firm he'd built and opted for a higher offer from a bank. But the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. shut down the overleveraged bank, which Murray doesn't name, and he was left on the hook for $30 million in new loans signed while he was negotiating the deal. Beyond broke, he spiraled into alcoholism.
After well over a year he rang up the GE executive who tried to buy his company—and who had since moved to Intuit—to ask for help. Murray was initially given a shot at revitalizing the direct-marketing campaign for TurboTax. The idea for doing so came through his mail slot. At that time, AOL (TWX) was sending software upgrades to customers on CDs. Murray advised Intuit to send past customers disks with updated TurboTax software on them. If they paid online or on the phone, they could unlock it. Suddenly the response rate to Intuit's direct marketing jumped from 15% to 60%.
But Murray keeps his personal history from playing too big a part. Instead, Jobs pops up a lot, even though Murray, who's clearly an admirer, didn't interview him. He relies on often familiar stories to portray Jobs' notorious ability to co-opt the ideas of others. "Sadly, I'll never be Steve Jobs, and neither will you, but I can simulate the way he thinks even if it isn't inherent in me. And you can, too," he writes.
The strongest advice in the book is Murray's notion that the best ideas to pilfer are the least obvious. "The farther away from your subject you borrow materials from, the more creative your solution." Murray repeats his main points—even some anecdotes. But his aim is to demystify the thing that makes many a manager sweat profusely. And he's living proof the method can produce results.