Innovation is for Cowards

Okay – I should probably apologize for using such a strong word. But truthfully, that word, coward, captures the viscerally negative feeling I get when someone says the word “innovation”. The word innovative has become like most buzz-words; their overuse convolutes their meaning ad absurdum. Buzzwords are totally ineffectual because clever people develop mental masking tape for them in order to get through a meeting.

I’m certain that is my primary issue with the word “innovation”. It is that it has no real meaning anymore. The term is passed around like zigzags at the Denver October-fest (honest, I’ve never inhaled). A friend told me that he was a consultant at a company that was paid six figures to “quantify the underlying psychological reasons people like chocolate in order to create a platform for candy innovation.”  If that doesn’t strike you as just plain silly, self-important language than you probably shouldn’t read on.

My second issue is when I hear leaders tell their employees “we need to be more innovative as a company”. That’s like telling someone that they need to be more funny – an impossibly hyperbolic and subjective request with no tactical application. Saying you’re “innovative” is like saying you’re “cool” – if you have to say it, you’re defiantly not “it”.

The definition of innovation that resonates with me the most is that innovation is the combining of things that are already invented ( via pbs ). If you agree with that, than innovation is quite simple. And, the more things you combine, the more innovative you can call yourself. How about a mobile charging, key locating, pill splitting, clamshell busting, letter opening, paper cutting, box opening, bluetooth, usb connecting, flash-drive screwdriver? (Seriously, it exists.)

We are now in an era where innovation is the easy way out. It is the intellectual’s boredom cure because the things we should do are mundane, like product improvement, or better yet, feature reduction. Sometimes just plain, old-fashioned product maintenance is the best course of action we can do to serve our customers. How about, we just make better chocolate? I have worked with departments that have over 200 apps deployed. Each app was an attempt to be an innovative “silver bullet” to a customer’s complaint or an executive’s tangent idea. Most of them are complete junk as they were more about departmental motion rather than company movement.

As I was discussing this post with a colleague, he asked me “are you calling Steve Jobs a coward?” Actually, Mr. Jobs never called himself an innovator – he preferred to think of himself as a discoverer. He had customer problems he would try to solve and would have his eyes wide open, looking for ways to solve them. He didn’t innovate for innovation’s sake – he discovered and created for his customer’s sake. I believe innovative is a title you earn after success, not a process you take to be successful.

The best products I have been a part of would not be categorized as “innovative”.  The great product leaders of today are methodical, feature frugal, and customer empathetic. In short, they are brave leaders committed to the “boring” and methodical aspect of their job: continuous improvement towards the way they serve their customers.

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