Tuesday, January 26, 2021

What we talk about, when we talk about innovation

 After over 15 years of work in the innovation space, sometimes I get a bit weary talking about innovation.  After all, innovation is a frequently misused word, and it's often used with a lot of naive optimism on the part of some speakers (hope before experience) and cynicism on the part of other speakers.

Increasingly, in businesses large and small, we talk, and we write, and we debate about innovation.  I've tried to define what innovation is (people putting ideas into valuable action) and tried to provide the breadth (Doblin's Ten types of innovation) and depth (three horizons - incremental/transformative/disruptive). Yet people persist in creating their own definitions about innovation, often creating dissonance where none is necessary.  What you'll find is that you cannot talk meaningfully or logically about a topic where there are no shared definitions.

What we fail to talk about is the purpose of innovation.  In all this talk about innovation, I think we often get caught up in the "ways" of innovation but lose sight of the purposes and outcomes.  And I think that's why there is often a lot of talk about innovation that frequently fails to come to fruition.

That is to say, we know we want innovation, but we aren't sure exactly 1) how to go about it or 2) what the measurable outcome will be if we innovate successfully.  And all the while, many of us talking about innovation are whistling past the graveyard, failing to talk about two very important aspects of innovation - the ability to do what we are talking about doing, and the risks we will face if we innovate.

All that to say - most people talking about innovation are similar to people who have never climbed a mountain who get together over coffee in a Starbucks to talk about summiting Everest.  More than likely they don't have the ability, the knowledge or the skills, but they have a BHAG goal.  They more than likely don't know the risks and probably aren't willing to face them.  The outcomes and recognition seems great, but they aren't familiar with the work or the risks, and all the talk will amount to nothing.

So, when we talk about innovation, perhaps we should refocus what we talk about. 

We should:

  • Start by defining our terms
  • Start talking about specific, measurable outcomes and how to achieve them.
  • Start talking about the skills and capabilities we need in order to make those specific and measurable outcomes occur - and then implementing the programs to build the skills
  • Start talking about the risks we'll face and how we'll prepare for them and address them.
  • Stop talking about innovation as if it is something that anyone can do without preparation.
  • Stop talking about generalities and start talking about specifics.
  • Stop talking about BHAGs without talking about budgets and resources.

In fact, if possible we should stop using the word "innovation" because it has been so maligned and misused as to be almost meaningless.  As long as we recognize that our misuse of a word does not negate its power or its meaning.

So, I hope you keep talking about "that which cannot be named", but do so in entirely new ways, using my recommendations about to start talking in new, more specific ways and to stop misusing the word.

Most importantly, stop talking in the abstract and start talking in the specific, the definitive.  And further, put some of that talk into action, to build skills, to plan for and address risk, and to carry out new growth and differentiation activities (see what I did there?)

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:13 AM


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