Innovation Rant

This article appears in the most recent edition of Healthcare Information Management & Communications Canada magazine:

Why do bad things happen to good words? What did the word “innovation”,along with its siblings, “innovate”,“innovative” and “innovator”, do that was so despicable, so heinous as to end up in buzzword hell?

Once reserved to herald inventions that had a profound impact on humankind such as Edison’s light bulb or Marconi’s radio, “innovation” is now used to describe life changing developments such as a new flavour of pop tart. As someone who carefully assesses every word for its impact, I wince more often than not when I see this once powerful word reduced to marketing hype.

To what extent is the word “innovation” overused? According to a December 2013 article in The Wall Street Journal, 197 companies on the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock market index used the term during third quarter shareholder calls in 2013, nearly double the amount from an identical quarter in 2007. This same article – “Is a Peanut Butter Pop-Tart an Innovation” – claims that “companies aren’t just using ‘innovation’ to define breakthrough projects that led to new technology or products; they’re also using the term to describe minor product tweaks and next-generation product features.”

Companies are not the only ones guilty of making liberal use of “innovation” and its derivatives. So too are individuals. According to LinkedIn, “Innovative” has made the list of its members 10 most overused buzzwords for each of the last four years and is the only word to have done so.

Writing on his own blog, Scott Berkun, author of the 2007 book “The Myths of Innovation”, claims:

“Instead of saying ‘we are smart’, ‘we are good’, or ‘we are willing to try new ideas’, messages that can be examined for truth, the word innovation is thrown down ambiguously, as if it were a replacement for having a message, or stating one clearly.”

Echoing Mr. Berkun’s sentiments, Bill Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company magazine, suggests in a December 2013 HBR Blog Network article that the word innovation is “quickly losing whatever meaning it once had.” Mr. Taylor notes that few of the companies and leaders who aspire to make a difference “use the word ‘innovation’ to describe their strategy – implicitly or explicitly they understand that it has been sapped of all substance.” What they do instead, according to Mr. Taylor, is “offer rich and vivid descriptions of what they hope to do, where they hope to get, and why it matters.”

Is innovation the goal to which all organizations should aspire? Must all change be innovative?

According to a May 2012 article in The Wall Street Journal, Scott Berkun believes that what most people call an innovation is just a “very good product”. He chooses to reserve the word innovation for “world civilization changing inventions like electricity, the printing press and the telephone.” In this same article, Matt Roberts, CEO of online restaurant-reservation company OpenTable, states that “change comes more from a process than an end product” and refers to this process as “optimization” rather than “innovation”.

Perhaps the problem is that we are focusing on innovation as an outcome. Consider the peanut butter pop-tart that has become the cautionary tale about overuse of the word “innovation”. While I think that most people will agree that a peanut butter pop-tart is hardly innovative, maybe the process to produce one is difficult and fraught with challenges. A different and novel approach may have been needed to overcome these challenges.

What if we think about innovation not as an outcome but as a means to an end? Writing in Wired Magazine, Michael O’Bryan, founder of the innovation consulting company 360 Thinking suggests that innovation isn’t about what we produce but how we approach solving problems and adapting to an ever changing world. In a November 2013 article entitled “Innovation: The Most Important and Overused Word in America”, Mr. O’Bryan writes:

“Specifically, we need people to possess a series of thinking skills and behavioral traits that result in their ability to discover, develop, and test ideas and solutions that will result in positive changes not only their prospective fields but also in their daily lives. Therefore, innovation should not be discussed as a specific term but as a series of skills and behaviors that a person must possess to be innovative.”

Scott Anthony, author of “The Little Black Book of Innovation”, offers a simple definition of this outcome – “something different that has impact.” These impacts need not be momentous or life changing but, like the peanut butter pop-tart, are felt and appreciated by those to whom they matter.

Like Mr. O’Bryan, Mr. Anthony believes that innovation is a process by which change that has an impact is achieved. In a May 2012 HBR Blog Network article, My O’Bryan states that innovation is a “discipline to be mastered and managed”, one that is “hard work” and
“takes significant practice.”

Despite its unfortunate transformation into an overused buzzword, innovation is still an important concept, particularly in healthcare. Scott Anthony believes that “far from becoming a cliché, innovation will be as important to future leaders as strategy and operational excellence is to current ones.” Maybe we just need to practice it more and talk it about it less.

What are your thoughts on innovation? Is it an overused term? Is innovation a means to end rather than the end itself? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.



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