The language of innovation is broken

Ask most CEOs what they want their company to be known for and the first thing they will say is ‘innovative’.

We all nod sagely but unfortunately we are usually none the wiser. That’s because innovation, as a term, no longer works. The language of innovation is broken and it desperately needs fixing.

The word innovation is everywhere, so ubiquitous as to appear in front of almost any new product you could imagine. Fancy an innovative coffee before your innovative workout? Perhaps at lunch you could grab an innovative pizza? What about an innovative toilet brush? I kid you not.

Innovation is fast becoming the new ‘sustainability’, a bit of lazy jargon that through overuse has lost its definition. When people say innovation, they really mean ‘being like Google and Apple’ and it tends to precede the purchasing of bean bags, office bicycles and the creation of ‘team innovation time’.

However, the concept of innovation is more complex than our typical usage would suggest. For starters, we typically associate innovation only with new products rather than transformative concepts, ideas or services. Redesigning cities, rethinking health problems, creative management and quality assurance are all new developments that have revolutionised how we live and work and yet there’s not a single product in sight.

Innovation also means more than invention. It involves the ability not just to come up with new ideas but to be able to fulfil their potential, to turn them into something that has a significant impact on how we think, feel and act.

It’s also true many innovations aren’t even new. Some of the most famous innovations were ideas that had been created elsewhere and the skill of the innovator was bringing the ideas together and making them work as one.

Andrew Hargadon, in his book How Breakthroughs Happen, argues Thomas Edison was simply a ‘technology broker’ who combined ideas from a group of other inventors in his Menlo Park laboratories. Henry T Ford may have ‘created’ the modern car assembly line but the idea originated from the production process he saw in his local abattoir. As Steve Jobs famously said: ‘Picasso had a saying "Good artists copy; great artists steal" and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.’

So if innovation isn’t always just about new products or inventions, what does it really mean? I’ve identified five attributes we admire in companies regarded as innovative:

  1. Their ability to change how we see, think and feel about the world
  2. The way their products and services transform the marketplace
  3. Their capability and resources to turn the new idea into a big idea we can all share
  4. Their courage to swim against the tide, to do things different to the mainstream
  5. Their ability to repeat the above time and time again so that the change is constant

So James Dyson’s skill as an innovator isn’t just his inventions but his ability to turn ideas into products that now sit in homes across the country. John Lewis may be an old established retailer but its customer service focus and partnership model have set it apart from the rest. IBM is innovative not just because they are pushing the boundaries in technology but because they are constantly reinventing who they are and what they do.

Rather than aping the flashiness of the tech sector, CEOs would be better focusing their organisations on how to embody the attributes on which true innovation rests.

How do you create an open, listening and reflective company, able to generate their own new ideas and act as a ‘broker’ for others? How do you ensure teams work collaboratively, not in silos, so that new inventions have a chance to take hold and flourish? How do you build a sense of organisational self-confidence sufficient to turn established thinking on its head?

The attempt to be innovative should actually pose some difficult questions for most organisations.

So the next time the CEO puts ‘innovation’ in their speech, cross it out and ask exactly what sort of innovation they really mean.

This article was first published in CorpComms Magazine, February 2016.

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