Ah, innovation. The queen of useless words, derided for years. But like a cold you haven’t fully recovered from, innovation just keeps bouncing back. There are conferences about innovation, governmental bodies responsible for innovation, and of course innovative products that really aren’t. But since we’re not even using the word correctly anymore, let’s finally scratch it from the business dictionary.
A few years ago Michael O’Bryan – ironically enough, an innovation consultant – wrote for Wired that we’ve descended to the point where to be innovative, we have to encourage innovation. We’ve fallen into the mindset of just trying to innovate for the sake of innovating, even though it doesn’t even mean anything. So, what actually is innovation? According to Benoît Godin, a historian of innovation, the modern meaning of the word was coined in 1939 by Joseph Schumpeter, one of the most influential minds of 20th century economics. In Schumpeter’s definition, businesses innovate when they turn inventions into constructive changes in their business model.
It sounds desirable. Except this is not how we’ve been using the term for the past couple of years, is it?
We tore constructive out of the definition. And with that, the whole meaning was gone. Self-lacing shoes and a chair partially designed by a computer made it to the top three of Wired’s most innovative objects. Neither is a bad idea – on the contrary – but one is form over substance and the other more of a concept than an actual product. They are many things, but a constructive change isn’t one of them.
Here’s a hint: if you feel the need to say that your product or company is innovative, it probably isn’t. We reduced innovation to novelty, but novelty for its own sake breeds smart lunchboxes and apps to check if a woman next to you in a subway train is pregnant. The Internet of Things, a market I have ranted about more than once, is a textbook example of misguided attempts at innovation. The segment is filled with companies thinking that adding internet connectivity to an everyday object is a form of innovation even though it’s often more like a form of bad design. In software, the chase after innovation comes disguised as featuritis or, how The Interaction Design Foundation puts it, the tendency for the number of features in a product to rise with each release of the product. Growth is stalling? Add more features and say we innovate! Competition is gaining momentum? Add more features and say we innovate! In the past couple of years there has been no better example of that than the Android hardware ecosystem. With both hardware and software commoditizing, companies like Samsung, HTC, and Sony raced to differentiate with custom user interfaces for Android. Under the guise of innovating, they piled up gimmicks that made each custom solution uglier and less usable than the stock Android UI. And guess what: all three are now struggling in the smartphone space.
The software industry’s propensity for feature bloat is yet another way we stripped the original definition of innovation of meaning. Look at it. It says nothing about adding things, it’s about change. If you want an example of someone who does this right, look at Xiaomi. I’m perplexed when people try to play them down as just another Chinese knockoff. Instead of adding a custom skin to Android with a handful of gimmicks to Android, Xiaomi has rebuilt Android into their own operating system, MIUI. Thanks to its performance and versatility, some people even prefer MIUI over stock Android – something you won’t see for Samsung’s TouchWiz or Sony’s Xperia UI. But that’s not everything. Xiaomi keeps up a breakneck pace of development with MIUI. They release new builds every week to capture and act on user’s feedback almost in real time. That’s constructive change in action.
Mind you, self-serving novelty dressed up as innovation is not only about products that a business brings to market. There’s also a lot of talk about internal innovation that’s supposed to make for a better workplace. But chasing management practices based on their novelty instead of their effectiveness is a sure fire way to burning your employees out. And yet companies are still flocking to these innovative solutions like moths to a fire. Just to give you two best-documented examples: unlimited vacation time and open space offices. The former implemented without proper coaching actually causes employees to take less days off while the latter is an outright scam: open plan offices are detrimental to employee health, wellbeing, and productivity. But hey, at least they’re innovative. Clayton Christensen, the author of Innovator’s Dilemma, a few years ago said that most companies say they’re innovative in the hope they can somehow con investors into thinking there is growth when there isn’t. Christensen’s claim to moral high ground might be dubious – after all his own theory of disruptive innovation falls apart under scrutiny – but this time he was right. It reminds me of a startup founder I once met who gloated about all the innovations his company introduced in a year. It didn’t matter to him that the adoption of those innovative products was close to none, or that his staff were burned out and rushing for the exit sign.
Trying hard to position yourself as innovative is a sign that there isn’t much substance to back your claim. So if you find yourself doing that, whether pitching the press, leads, or potential employees, it’s high time to look in the mirror and think hard on what setbacks are you trying to mask. Has your growth stalled? Has the competition gained an edge? Has the morale plummeted? None of this can not be fixed, but you can not innovate yourself out of a problem, you can only solve it. Or if you really feel the urge to be innovative, look 80 years back at Schumpeter’s definition and focus on a constructive change.