How to kill innovation hype

You know a big word is in trouble when it’s used repeatedly (inconcievable!) – it means the person saying it doesn’t know what it means or isn’t saying anything at all.

In a recent Ford TV ad, the word innovation is used once every 8 seconds, a sure sign that the i-word has seen better days.

Today the word innovation is a common placeholder – 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.

The goal of my upcoming  bestselling book, The Myths of Innovation is to bring honor back to the word by exploring the history of true innovations, and demystifying the breakthroughs of the past and the present.

Along the way I’ve learned some easy ways to diminish innovation hype:

  1. Challenge the word. Never allow the word to be used in conversation without asking “what do you mean by innovation?”. If it’s not clear to you as a listener how the word is being used, the speaker probably doesn’t know either: call them on it.
  2. Pick your meaning. Innovation is frequently used to mean one of: something new, something better, something new and better, or something that will win. If that’s what you mean, say that instead. If you’re not sure what you mean, say that, or just keep quiet.
  3. Avoid compound usage. As soon as you’re throwing hyphens around you know you’re in trouble. Innovation is a strong enough word to stand alone. Replace incremental Innovation, with improvement. Disruptive innovation with big change. Never have a slide or diagram that depends on multiple uses, with different meanings, of the same word (tip: you can use the words incremental and disruptive on their own – they’re grown up words too).
  4. Remember Edison. Most great innovations took place before there were business books on the subject. Edison didn’t need an innovation pipeline or an innovation infrastructure to invent the phonograph or perfect electric lights, and you don’t either. Somehow Da-Vinci, Tesla, and Picasso innovated without using the word: you and your company can too. Edison laughed at the hype-mongers, cursing rule makers and secret seekers, preferring to work hard at creating things rather than just talking about it.
  5. Competence trumps innovation. If you suck at what you do, being innovative will not help you. I don’t care how innovative Burger King might be, their food sucks. Business is driven by providing value to customers and often that can be done without innovation: make a good and needed thing, sell it at a good price, and advertise with confidence. If you can do those 3 things consistently you’ll beat most of your competitors, since they are hard to do: many industries have market leaders that fail this criteria. If you need innovations to achieve those 3 things, great, have at it. If not, your lack of innovation isn’t your biggest problem. (See Good Beats Innovative Nearly Every Time)
  6. Call bullshit. Asking for examples kills hype dead. Just say “can you show me your latest innovation?” Most people that use the word don’t have examples – they don’t know what they’re saying and that’s why they’re addicted to the i-word. Keep pressing and most hype-philes concede what they’re doing isn’t new. The fastest way to detect BS is to look at facts and at the present. True innovators rarely need the word: they just show their work.

13 Responses to “How to kill innovation hype”

  1. Siddharta

    Awesome post Scott.

    I especially like this part: Edison didn’t need an innovation pipeline or an innovation infrastructure to invent the phonograph or perfect electric lights, and you don’t either. So true.

    However, Edison and Tesla are a few among millions. Most companies don’t have even one quarter Edison in their companies. Can they just rely on luck that an Edison will show up, fight the bureaucracy, survive the politics, gain visibility, recieve backing, and get a light bulb out? If you multiply those tiny probabilities together, the chance of actually succeeding at such a dysfunctional organisation (thats most of them) is virtually nil.

    Perhaps we should break down organisations into smaller bits?

  2. Sara

    Brilliant. Just added you to my RSS feeder. My personal peeves? “literally”. Before that (though still prevalent) is “hysterical” instead of funny or comical. I noticed everyone and their mama started slinging hysterical around 2001 and like Juicy hoodies, it’s time to put it to rest.

    Cheers from a zesty health blogger – I ain’t innovative, but I am original.

  3. Scott (admin)

    Siddharta: thx & good question.

    The answer is accepting risk. Who says yes to taking risks? Show me a risk taker and I’ll show you an innovator.

    Big companies can innovate, they just need a VP who says “I’ll bet my reputation on project X” or “here’s $60k – go find the future.” I bet the story behind the Wii involves exactly this kind of decision making.

    If an organization is dysfunctional then innovation isn’t the thing managers should be worried about, is it? :)

  4. Jordan

    Hey, I like burger king. We used to have a family tradition of eating Thanksgiving dinner at Burger King after coming back to visit relatives. Maybe another lesson is: to each his own =o)

  5. Scott (admin)

    Jordan: Fair enough. Replace Burger King with whatever food you think is popular for reasons other than the quality of the food itself.

  6. Rik

    Great stuff man! You are spot on. I think the many meanings the word has come to have is its biggest problem. Maybe we should decide on a single concise meaning and invent new hype words for the others. Would take some of the heat off too ;-)

  7. Drew K

    One small nit. While Edison didn’t call it an innovation pipeline, he was the one who invented the R&D facility. From :

    “When Edison created the first industrial research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1876, he was seeking to extend, not replace, this shop tradition. Nonetheless, the Menlo Park laboratory prefigured a new model of research, as Edison merged the shop tradition with laboratory research. In addition, Edison turned increasingly to teams of researchers in order to develop all aspects of his inventions and move them rapidly into commercialization. By the early 1880s, Edison had transformed his “invention factory” into a true research and development laboratory, and, by doing so, he laid the cornerstone of modern industrial research.”

    Is “invention factory” really so different from “innovation pipeline”? I think we’ll let Edison be one of the few people who gets to claim that phrase honestly.

  8. Andrew Hallam

    As someone who lives in the “City of Innovation” I’ve always wondered what that label actually meant. Thanks for clearing that up for me! :-)

  9. Jorge C. Sá Couto

    It is incredible to see how this article was written almost 5 years ago and it is still completely up-to-date. Perhaps it is because the hype of innovation in Portugal and Spain arrived later or perhaps it’s because things just didn’t change.

    Some months ago I wrote exactly about what you did years ago. About the over-use of the word “innovation” and the different amount of definitions and concepts:

    It is 200% true that organizations, governments and people in general like to use the word innovation because it gives you a image of something new, fresh and techy. But it is just like you said, and what I wrote in my post; just stop speaking about it and start really doing something about it! Something tangible with valuable results.

    I work in the sector and I think we give too much credit to gurus or preachers than to practitioners and doers!

    By the way… “the i-word” my favorite from expression from all the article… ehehehehe



  1. Branding and Innovation…

    Sometimes these blog posts are so easy, they practically write themselves. Or someone else writes something brilliant and I steal it. Same diff. Today, it’s Scott Berkun waxing genius on the overuse–and resulting impotence–of the word “innovation….

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