Stop Saying Innovation – Here’s Why

[Update: an edited version of this post was published at The Economist]

I’m confident in this advice: Stop using the word innovation. Einstein, Ford, Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, Jobs and Edison rarely said the word and neither should you. Every business audience I’ve said this to has laughed and agreed: we all know other people use it as empty verbiage, but what about ourselves?

The word has little meaning, used as a vague substitute for “cool”, another problematic and highly subjective term. The people who use the word innovation most often have the least idea what the word even means. Next time you hear the word, ask and see.

People with good ideas and who do good work solve problems. They let their ideas be defined by the importance of the problems their ideas solve. It’s the solving of the problem that gives ideas power, not an adjective slapped onto Powerpoint slides or into job titles.

Great teams know this and drop pretense in favor of simple words like prototype, experiment, problem, solution, user, customer, lesson and design. Simpler language accelerates progress. Inflated language slows it down and confuses people. Calling yourself tall doesn’t make you tall. A word is just a word. It’s your actions that matter, not the labels you use.

There are four things you can do:

  1. Ask people who use the word what they mean. If ever anyone says innovation in a meeting, ask “Can you give an example of what you mean by innovative?” If they can’t, you’ve just saved the room significant time. Often they don’t know: they’re using the i-word as a cop-out for clear thinking. Point them at a good definition.
  2. Use better words instead. Often people mean one of 1) we want new ideas, 2) we want better ideas, 3) we want big changes, 4) we need to place big bets on new ideas and be more tolerant of taking risks 5) We want to make a lot more money. Great. Any of those short phrases are more powerful and specific than the i-word. Use them instead.
  3. The best definition of innovation is: significant positive change. It forces the attention on what kind of positive change you want (better sales? higher quality? more customers?) and how large an improvement you desire (10%? 40%?). To say you innovate every day is hubris and belittles the history of true inventions that changed the world. Staying humble helps you focus and increases the odds you’ll do excellent work.
  4. Avoid using the i-word in presentations, emails and internal documents. It’s one thing for marketers to use innovation in press releases. It’s another to let that word cloud up how people making things think about what they’re making. Force your team to be precise and give up the crutch of the innovation word. Ask: what problem are you trying to solve? what benefit are you trying to create? Reward people who use the word sparingly and find better ways to communicate.
  5. Just be good – That’s hard enough. Most things made in the world suck. If your company struggles to make a half-decent product, with the morale of a prison, why are you talking about innovation? You have to get the training wheels off before entering the Daytona 500. If you can making something good, that solves real problems, works reliably, is affordable, and is built by a happy, motivated and well rewarded staff, you’ll kick your competitor’s asses. Focus on solving those real problems. If you succeed on those, innovation, in all its forms, will likely take care of itself.

You can’t have innovation by any definition without being willing to take risks. But there is nothing less risky than merely repeating a word while taking no action.

Breakthroughs are a matter of perspective and if you take a wide view it’s being good that beats innovation nearly every time.

If you like this advice, you’ll love the paperback edition of The Myths of Innovation. Read the excellent summary of the ten myths from the book.


44 Responses to “Stop Saying Innovation – Here’s Why”

    1. Shawn

      I agree! I am over the use of these words because they sound good and some one used them as a tech industry leader and now everyone needs to. I like how eloquently you stated what i was feeling. Thanks.

  1. Howard

    “If you can making something good, that solves real problems, works reliably, is affordable, and is built by a happy, motivated and well rewarded staff, you’ll kick your competitor’s asses. Focus on solving those real problems. If you succeed on those innovation, in all its forms, will likely take care of itself.”

    This is glorious! Do write more about Project Management as it is an important tool for getting things done in the way you are talking about. As you know, Project Management is becoming a more holistic discipline. Take a look at Vertabase – for a good example of SaaS that is making that shift.

  2. Chris S.

    Completely Agree! Maybe it needs to come off of the sub-title of your blog:-)

  3. Twylite

    No, don’t stop using the word. Use it correctly.

    The tech industry is well on its way to becoming infamous for misunderstanding words or terms and then denigrating them as “buzzwords”.

    Synergy, leverage, productivity, innovation, and other words that have specific meaning within their fields (business and economics) are regularly misused by techs-turned-manager and other uneducated (or at least under-educated for the job) folk who are trying to sound impressive. This basically impoverishes the vocabulary of business, reducing the effectiveness of communication between managers.

    A programmer understands the distinction between a library, a class, a namespace, an object; between a member, a function, and a procedure. The distinctions between these concepts mean nothing to someone without the appropriate technical education, but they make communication between programmers more efficient: rather than asking for a collection of related variables and named code blocks that operate on or with those variables, you can ask for a class (or would that be a namespace? so much meaning in just one word).

    Innovation does NOT mean the creation of new ideas. It is the process of introducing those ideas. In a business (for profit environment) that means using the new ideas (already obtained by invention) to further the goals of the business (loosely, but not entirely correctly: to increase profits). There is a whole lot more meaning in that word, which is why “business people” use “innovate” rather than “introduce new ideas”. Effective communication via a domain-specific vocabulary.

    This has been the accepted meaning of “innovation” since the 1930s (at least; Schumpter IIRC), and has lasted the last 70 years of inventors inventing in sheds and innovators getting rich off the inventions (typically of others).

    My 2c.

  4. Scott

    Twylite wrote:

    > The tech industry is well on its way to
    > becoming infamous for misunderstanding
    > words or terms and then denigrating them
    > as “buzzwords”.

    Well on its way? I think we’re already there :)

    I agree about correct usage, but that’s an uphill battle. What do you when you’re in the room when the word is being used to mean 10 different things without clarification? That’s part of my point. It’s only when someone makes a stink about the abuse of language, or calls BS on someone who uses buzzwords to cover for their lack of thought, that anything good is likely to happen.

    I’ve been cranky about language lately, and I recognize that the definitions of words are social functions and they change all the time – even the people who coin terms don’t have control over them – but I’m still convinced it makes sense for people to fight for clarity of language, and one way to achieve that is to question and probe words are used deliberately to make things unclear.

  5. Frank Boyd

    The first person I heard make this case was Curt Carlson at Stanford Research International when I went there with the BBC. He said he preferred to use the the term ‘value creation’.

    He was really just making a point in the context of his own institution’s need to generate more tangible benefits from its R&D activity.

    And it didn’t stop him calling his recent book on the topic: ‘Innovation’.

  6. Ted Goas

    Hehe, I agree. The word is over- and mis-used so often. I, too, often have to clarify exactly what someone means when saying “innovation.”

    Definitely earned its way into the library of business jargon that sound nice and mean nothing!

  7. Malcolm McKinnon

    First, I love the article and agree with the premise: Innovation is often misused.

    Proposed Substitute: “good change”.

    I think “good change” encourages questions and discussion and thus encourages clarity. I think more people would ask the question and feel comfortable answering “what’s good?” than “what’s innovation?”. I also think “change” implies something can be measured and again encourages the follow on question “what change?”.

    1. Ron

      A professor of mine back in 1999 called this adjective inflation; when a word is flooded into an environment, used inaccurately a whole lot, then loses its original sense because its users have lost its original meaning. I think that its healthy to acknowledge this phenomenon but somewhat unuseful on a larger scale. Whats good about this is, new words are presented to replace that original and intended meaning. Sometimes it is the original word once again but rarely.

  8. Prashant Thorat

    Thank You Sooo much!!!

  9. Fran

    It appears you’re trying to be innovative by advocating the scrapping of the word ‘innovative’.

  10. Rick

    I agree that being careful with language is important. It would be nice if that could include proofreading before posting!:

    To say you innovative every day
    emails and and internal documents

    And what’s the difference between “taking to action” and “taking action”?

  11. Ashish Bhatnagar

    I agree that most times the I-word is over-used and even mis-used so often.

    David Burkus view on innovation: The application of ideas that are novel and useful. Creativity, the ability to generate novel and useful ideas, is the seed of innovation but unless it’s applied and scaled it’s still just an idea.

    In most uses of the I-word, it refers to a positive change that is the result of a person or a company’s agility to align & adapt to the changing environment and offers a significant value to the eco-system. Most such changes are just different shades of an innovation that happened in the past.



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