We’re obsessed with creating a “culture of innovation.” Whether you’re speaking as someone working in tech, someone living in the Bay Area, or just a human reading the news. It’s impossible to avoid this buzzword. And while it might just strike many as annoying, throwing around this term is keeping us from actually creating products that make an impact in the world.

What does “innovation” even mean?

Don’t get us wrong. We love powerful ideas that positively affect the lives of real people. That’s why we’re here, and that’s what we set out to do every single day. But this obsession with the idea of “innovation” is increasingly lacking in a clear follow up on how these kinds of game-changer ideas actually emerge and make their way into the world.

Everywhere you look, companies, universities, and other organizations are implementing “innovation labs,” in healthcare, transportation, tech, and even food sciences and home improvement retail brands.

Back in 2013, Wired writer, Michael O’Bryan, put innovation obsession in its place when he said, “There are currently more innovation initiatives to change the status quo across the country than there are status quo’s.”

This term has become such a buzzword that the very definition is watered down. What does it mean to be “innovative” anymore? And how do we really go about it?

On the one hand, it’s heartening to see such enthusiasm for new ideas. It wasn’t always that way. In fact, just a few hundred years ago, innovation was seen as an evil and insidious force that corrupted good minds.

The same Atlantic article linked above also includes a quote by Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University. Cowen is particularly interested in global culture and the ways that people come together to create things bigger than themselves. But this obsession with the word innovation, he says, is a self-congratulatory way of feeling like you’re doing something without actually getting much done:

“Americans have this self-image that we’re the great inventors, [but] we’ve dropped the ball in many areas. We also see a lot of social tolerance — people confuse that with technological breakthroughs. [They have] a vague sense that things are getting better.”

We’re hearing more and more about “a culture of innovation.” But what does a culture of innovation even mean? How do we know if it’s successful?

Innovation as a marketing ploy

The truth is that innovation is really a word that can only be used long after the fact, once the actual impact of an idea or product has had time to live in the public arena. Innovation can only really be measured by its impact. And that’s something that we seem to be forgetting.

Setting up “innovation stations” complete with teams of students or engineers, in the hopes that they can come up with innovative new ideas, isn’t much of a game plan. It is, however, effective as a way of drumming up publicity.

Just announcing that you’re going to implement an innovation lab is about as meaningful as walking into a room and declaring that you’re going to do “something amazing.” It’s showmanship, it’s theater, but it’s not real work and there isn’t anything to show for all that big talk.

True innovation isn’t easy or predictable. It’s widely known that many of the most world-changing inventions were accidents or mistakes. So why do we insist we can set up an innovation department and actually expect great things?

Fostering true innovation

So then, how do we actually build a culture of innovation? The first step is to stop concentrating on the idea of a revolutionary idea. That’s not particularly helpful in a step-by-step approach to creating products and services that really make a difference in people’s lives. Instead, we should focus on the problems out there.

True innovation can only be measured long after the real work has been done. We understand the actual impact of a product only once it’s out in the real world, being used by real people. Working backwards from “it will be revolutionary” doesn’t give you much of a roadmap or a jumping off point. It’s akin to telling yourself to come up with a great idea, fast. Your mind goes blank and you start looking around the room for ideas… “How about a…pencil…that heats your coffee?”

Starting with a problem, on the other hand, and working through ways to solve that problem, makes it possible to see the steps ahead and create a concrete plan for getting there.

Metrics are also an overlooked aspect of innovation. If you want to make an impact, the only way to know whether or not you’re succeeding at your goal is to closely watch all relevant and accessible data on the product, your users, and their interactions with it.

At Mokriya, metrics are one of the very first priorities on our lists when we start to create a new solution to a problem. What are we choosing to focus on? What are we measuring? By clearly laying out what information we’re going to track and how, early in the process, we can be confident that we’ll see the true impact of our work as it happens. 

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We all want to make an impact. We want to do important work and we want to see that work go out into the world and affect people. But we shouldn’t get so tunnel visioned that we forget that it’s hard work that must comes first before the glory. Innovation is a result, one that’s hard to predict and impossible to use as a guide. Challenges, problems — these are the starting points you can use to get to work and create useful things.

So get to work. 

 

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About Tricina Elliker

Tricina Elliker is a regular contributing writer to Mokriya, based in Portland, Oregon. She's been writing about science and tech since 2008 and received her MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University in 2013.