In the late 18th century, something strange happened: A revolution in medicine that should have taken place didn't.

It started in 1772, when Joseph Priestley, an English theologian, philosopher, and chemist, synthesized nitrous oxide. A few years later, Humphry Davy, another lauded chemist, noted that nitrous oxide "appears capable of destroying physical pain." He recommended that "it may probably be used with advantage during surgical operations."

The British upper class had a different idea. The laugh-inducing compound became a popular recreational drug--laughing-gas parties were commonplace--but for nearly half a century, the medical community ignored Davy's suggestion. Not one doctor, or any of those giggling British aristocrats, thought to use nitrous oxide to dull the pain of surgery.

It took two dentists from the United States to turn the tide. Horace Wells, who managed a practice in New Haven, had experimented with ether, but it was William Morten of Boston who is credited with demonstrating that ether could work as an anesthetic. On October 16, 1846, Morten administered the gas to a middle-aged piano teacher from Boston, which allowed a large tumor to be removed from his neck without pain. "Gentlemen, this is no humbug," declared John C. Warren, a prominent surgeon at the Massachusetts General Hospital who oversaw the experiment. Modern anesthetics had finally emerged.

And yet, when anesthesia was first employed in London in 1846, it was labeled a "Yankee dodge." "Most of the characteristics the surgeons had developed--the indifference, the strength, the pride, the sheer speed--were suddenly irrelevant," David Wootton writes in Bad Medicine. Using anesthesia felt like cheating, so few doctors did it--at least at first.

The history of innovation rarely unfolds in straight lines. If anything, it zigzags and occasionally backtracks. Anesthesia is almost comically circuitous. Compared with other innovations, however, its implementation was swift. The benefits were visible and immediate--even a minor surgery in those days caused patients to scream and flail violently--so it "spread like a contagion." Usually, the invention-implementation gap is much wider.

For instance, in his early teens Blaise Pascal constructed the first mechanical calculator, ideal for a 17th-century accountant though largely ignored for 250 years. Sanctorius Sanctorius invented the thermometer in the 17th century but clinicians didn't think to use it until the 19th century. As Peter Bernstein notes in Against the Gods, the ancient Greeks were wily mathematicians who played gambling games with dice. The conditions were ripe for the discovery of probability and statistics. These, too, emerged much later.

Yet when we think about innovation, we think in terms of narratives. We want a story, so we weave the facts into a familiar plot and cast the innovator in the main role. There's the lone inventor (Tesla), the censored genius (Galileo), the lackluster student with a vibrant imagination (Einstein), the scientist on a quest (Darwin), and the mercurial visionary (Jobs). The innovator is, invariably, a protagonist contending with authority--an unruly parent, the academy, or maybe insecurities and self-doubt. Pick your antagonist and don't forget the eureka moment. What good is a story without redemption?

The problem is that good storytelling can seduce clear thinking and ignores accidental discovery. It gleans over the details and clouds our ability to understand how innovation unfolds in the present. For instance, in 1985 reporters at Time magazine criticized Steve Jobs as "the brash, brilliant and sometimes bumptious brat of Silicon Valley." In 2011, a writer for Forbes praised Jobs by citing the same traits. "I'm not a jerk like Jobs was. Which is ... why I'm just a moderately successful business guy, and not a super billionaire."

We wonder if the writers were concerned about creating a story that they wanted to tell at the expense of getting the facts right. When times were bad, Jobs's obsessive and brutal leadership style was criticized. When times were good, it was celebrated as necessary evil. Can both be true? Robert Sutton got it right when he compared Jobs to a Rorschach test. "He was so hyped, so complex, and apparently inconsistent that the 'lessons' [admirers learned] from him were really more about who they were and hoped to be than about Jobs himself."

We also think in terms of narratives when we talk about companies. If a company encourages employees to, say, work from home, commentators will endorse the rule if the company does well ("Their innovative and unrestrictive culture led to great new products and a boom in sales") and lambaste it if the company does poorly ("Their laissez-faire culture led to a string of lackluster products and a drop in sales").

This is not to say that Jobs's irreverent approach and working from home are meaningless. They're not. In the search for "timeless, universal answers that can be applied by any organization," as Jim Collins puts it in his mega bestseller Good to Great, we descend on a story that sounds good instead of scrutinizing the details. Does working from home affect performance? Did Jobs's "reality distortion field" help? It's hard to know. In The Halo Effect, Phil Rosenzweig writes that "unless the data were gathered in a way that was truly independent of performance ... we really don't have an explanation of performance at all."

Business books have done very little for innovation. Yet the tendency to mimic the lessons advertised in business books and expect a subsequent boost in creative output is hard to resist. A good writer provides memorable anecdotes, and there's a good anecdote for just about anything. Readers don't realize it, but they tend to conflate the sound bite for objective fact.

We might be in a better position if we avoided the business aisle. Commentators sometimes selectively report the facts and talk about the history of innovation as if innovators knew where they were was going. Minus in a few exceptional cases, such as the Manhattan project and the Apollo program, they were flying blind. We should also be skeptical of how innovators report the past. They, too, are prone to creating their own histories. Instead of searching for a magic formula, businesses should do what innovators did: embrace trial and error.

Ironically, it's hard to convincingly advertise this approach without telling a good story or pointing to a successful company--we're looking at you, Google and Apple. Better, here are three book recommendations so readers can make up their own minds.

The first is The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner. Perhaps no other company witnessed the value of trial and error more than AT&T during the 20th century. Bell Labs, which AT&T funded, was humming with new ideas for decades. Interestingly, Bell Labs put off patenting the laser in the 1960s because it didn't see the commercial potential. Even eminent innovators, perhaps operating under the delusion that an invention should be obvious, struggle to recognize good ideas.

In The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz explains how leaders can adopt a trial-and-error approach. And finally, check out Nassim Taleb's Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. Taleb writes that innovation is not about applying theory to search for something that everyone is looking for. Rather, it's about putting the existing pieces in the right place, as was done for anesthetics.