Broken Innovation

Strap into the way-back machine, folks. We’re headed to 2007 where a guy named Scott Berkun wrote “The Myths of Innovation.” Even six long, technology-soaked years ago, Berkun said that the term, “innovation,” was a word used to hide a lack of substance and that it should be banned at companies all together. Apparently, this book was not a best seller, because…

Every year, Capgemini Consulting puts out an Innovation Leadership Study. The document is filled with recommendations, statistics, and survey results that point to the status of innovation in business (apparently as a whole). The very fact that something like this study exists should be a major red flag that innovation, as a term, has lost its meaning. There are literally executives, who are the “Chief Innovation Officer” and are responsible for the “innovation strategies” of a company. According to statistics in the same Innovation Leadership Study, many of these “Innovation Officers” exist only so corporations can say they have an “Innovation Officer.” Unfortunately, the term, “innovation,” has become a buzzword without substance. It’s even on business cards, now.

According to an article from Leslie Kwoh over at the Wall Street Journal, (thanks for the research Leslie) Apple used the word “innovation” 22 times in its latest annual report and Google used the word 14 times, but technology companies aren’t the only ones overusing the term. Proctor & Gamble used the word 22 times in its most recent report, Scotts-Miracle Gro, 21 times and Campbell Soup, 18.

What could possibly be innovative about soup? Is there any way soup could be a world changing, society altering new creation. Is there any conceivable product that Campbell’s could produce that would alter the course of human history? Doubtful, unless they’re working on a batch of chicken noodle that actually does cure the common cold… and cancer… and avian flu.

“Innovation,” Devalued

All soups aside, there’s a compelling case that the term, “innovation,” has lost its value. Most advertisements today feature the word — watch commercials, car commercials, washing machine commercials — almost any new product that comes out is tagged as innovative. Is a watch’s basic function still to tell time? Does it do that? Does a washing machine still fill up with water and slosh clothes around in a circle? If the answer to these questions is yes, then there’s nothing innovative at work. These products serve the same function they’ve always served in mostly the same way.

What is Innovative?

Ok, if kinetic energy reclamation for a timepiece and special stain settings for a washer aren’t innovations, then what are? Innovations should be defined as new ideas or inventions that fundamentally change how society perceives or performs… something.

At the dawn of man, fire was an innovation, and the ability to create and control it helped fuel the earliest civilizations. In the last three decades, the Internet has left few segments of communication, business, socialization, entertainment, or science unaffected by its world altering influence.

But now, fire is just something that burns down California’s forests, and the Internet is quickly becoming something that’s taken for granted, like the switch that turns on the lights or the machine that washes the clothes.

The Innovation Benchmark

At one point, every new invention was a breakthrough innovation, washers and watches included. However, slapping the moniker on every new improvement without changing the basic function serves only to drain the word to emptiness.

Soon, science and technology will be creating the stuff of sci-fi legend; fusion reactors, fully functioning prosthetic hands, faster than light travel, molecular manipulation, and more. If the word innovation has becomes trivial, once the future finally arrives...there won’t be anything to say when true innovation appears.