“Innovation” Just Another Tired Word

Growing up in Wisconsin and learning to write, my teachers gave me a youth thesaurus. One of the categories in the book was called “tired words.” These were words that were non-descriptive and had lost their meaning over time because they were overused or didn’t clearly describe a situation.

I believe innovation is a tired word.

Managers love using words until they become meaningless and tired. “Quality,” “Partnership,” and “Strategic Alliance” all are examples of words that managers have used and misused to the point that they no longer mean anything. Do any of us trust a vendor who sits across the table and says “I want to establish a true partnership with you”?

Innovation is a tired word and quickly losing its meaning. The same word is used to describe revolutionary breakthroughs and meaningless extensions. There is a proliferation of experts: A quick Google search turns up over 22 million entries. Everyone can create a definition that suits their own needs.

It’s too bad. Innovation is a critical capability in these perilous times. Opportunities abound, but it requires leaders willing to try new methods – to innovate – in order to succeed in the midst of adversity.

Catalyzing innovation requires three different actions:

  • 1. Definition. Define the type of innovation you seek. Are you trying to revolutionize an industry at the risk of 95+% failure, or are you looking for a more sure, more modest improvement.
  • 2. Organization. Set up the organization to create the maximum chance for success. Create a cross functional team with the charter and freedom to create new approaches and products for the marketplace.
  • 3. Commitment & Execution. Successful, meaningful innovation requires personal commitment and crisp execution in order to succeed. Leaders must put themselves on the line in order for their organizations to take the risks necessary to make real change possible.

Let’s approach innovation with purpose and commitment. Let’s make the word mean something again!


2 Responses to ““Innovation” Just Another Tired Word”

  1. 1 denniskwilliams
    November 17, 2008 at 11:24 am

    Interesting points, Buckley. At the core of innovation, I believe, are a couple of points: 1. Successful innovations help people do (or avoid doing) things that they have to do anyway, but at a much lesser cost in terms of time and resources, while returning a profit to the provider of the innovation. 2. Timing is everything. As my son’s double-bass instructor said in response to his quesiton “does timing matter?” He replied, “The right note played at the wrong time is still the wrong note…”

    I am also a big fan of Christianson’s work with disruption. True innovations disrupt and create opportunity for the disruptor. There are examples of disrution all around. True innovations also usually have more to do with delivery platforms than with mere products. A platform change can be game changing whereas a so-called product based innovation may just be, like you said, a marginal extension. There are, of course, innovative product- like the ipod that has changed forever the way we store, manage and listen to our music. But then, I believe that is more akin to an outright platform change…

  2. November 17, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    Jim Andrew, a classmate at HBS and a Partner with BCG, does a good job talking about this when he describes the various types of innovation. He uses aircraft as his example. Breakthrough innovation creates an entire new industry (Orville & Wilbur on the NC beach). It has a 95+% failure rate, but can transform the world. At the other end of the spectrum is Maintenance Innovation. I like to call this “Accountants’ Innovation.” It is an incremental improvement where the investment and outcome can be known with some certainty. Jim uses the 737 and DC-9 as examples of this because they are two of the most profitable aircraft in history, based largely on Accountant’s Innovation.

    I believe it is extremely important to know where on this continuum you feel the most comfortable. If there isn’t a risk profile for 95% failure, don’t choose Breakthrough Innovation as your prime strategy…

    If you like disruptive theories and interesting people, check out Adam Hartung’s work. He does a terrific job talking about how 97% of all business education is irrelevant and needs to be reprogrammed. His Phoenix Principle will give you an entirely new perspective on how to run a company. Check him out at http://www.thephoenixprinciple.com.

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