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 is 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. (For reference, a good, practical definition is significant positive change).
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.