Monday, December 14, 2015

It's time to stop talking about innovation

Like many other hyped and highly anticipated phenomena, innovation has reached its saturation point, becoming a constantly used concept that simply isn't delivering as much meaning and value as has been promised.  That's not to say the hype or potential impact of innovation isn't true.  It's just that, as with any other new technology or capability, the advocacy gets ahead of the reality.  There are several reasons we should stop talking about innovation, a few of which I'll share in this post.  Note that I'm not recommending we stop doing innovative stuff, or stop building innovative skills, or stop hiring innovative people, or stop taking on uncertain but interesting innovation challenges.  All of that should still go on.  But, like the folks who love Fight Club, we should learn the first rule:  nobody talks about Fight Club.  But the reasons are very different.

First reason:  it's passe

The first reason we should stop talking about innovation is that it is passe.  Everybody knows that innovation is important, and equally everybody "knows" that it is unusual, infrequent and difficult.  Thus, the more we talk about innovation, the more it becomes a poorly defined word and concept that everyone has heard of and everyone is already "over".  We run a significant risk of weariness and worse, cynicism if we don't stop talking about it.

Second reason:  it's meaningless

"Innovation" as a word had a tremendous amount of power, once.  But it's overuse and intentional misuse has led us to the point where innovation means whatever the speaker wants it to mean.  While true innovation is complex, with many subtle differences and a range of potential outcomes, we've mostly limited it to incremental changes to existing products, while telling fairy tales about the impossible disruptive innovators like Apple, who must require some magic pixie dust to achieve those incredible innovation outcomes.  Too often corporate executives declare a new product or service "innovative" because that meets their needs, regardless if there's anything new or innovative about the offering. Thus, the word and concept has lost a lot of meaning.  You shouldn't be talking about innovation unless you can define it.

Third reason:  it's really about the customer and the outcome

Innovation is in the eye of the beholder, frequently acknowledge by purchase or acquisition.  While we in the corporate world may call something "innovative" the real measure is the product or service impact on the customer and the competitive landscape.  If customers and competitors shrug their collective shoulders at what you think is "innovative", then there's a good chance that you don't know what is innovative (see reason two).  We need to stop talking about what's innovative, and start talking about the measurable impact new products and services will have. 

Fourth reason:  it becomes an ends rather than a means

Innovation is simply a tool to help you achieve outsized growth, profits and differentiation.  These need to be your targets, and innovation a capability to help you achieve these goals. Far too often, innovation becomes the ends rather than the means.  We want to demonstrate that we are innovative in activities rather than in outcomes.  The more we focus on "innovation" and the less we focus on the results, the more innovation becomes important and the more we distract from or obfuscate the specific ends and means.

What's true is that most corporations don't really care how they achieve goals like greater profitability, increased revenue and significant differentiation.  It turns out that one really effective way to achieve those goals is through innovation.  But what get's lost in the conversation is how much innovation activity contributes to real profits, revenue or differentiation success.  When we start framing our goals in this way, HOW we achieve them becomes less important.

When we stop aggrandizing the tools and start highlighting the purpose we hope to achieve, the goals we hope to reach, we'll finally put to right the balance between talking about innovation and actually accomplishing important corporate objectives and goals.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:42 AM


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