What’s in a Word?
Hundreds of emails come across my desk everyday. Aside from the names I know and want to hear from, I pay attention to the subject lines that jump out at me (email rule No. 1). The absolute best one last week was, “Please, Can We All Just Stop ‘Innovating’?” from Harvard Business Review.
Are you tired of that word yet? Every week there’s a new book about innovation or innovators. Every conference invitation uses it to describe its event, its speakers or its sessions (guilty). But are we really innovating?
Innovation is the introduction of something new. Bill Gates uses innovation as a way to drive impact, whether it’s shaping software or saving the planet. “Innovation is the most powerful force for change in the world,” he says. That use is in line with popular culture that sees innovation as disruption, usually through radical technologies or ever-evolving business models. Social media is an example of cultural innovation; it certainly has forced changes in the way we relate to others.
Innovation is used to refer almost exclusively to inventions. Inventions are defined as products of the imagination or devices, contrivances or processes developed after study and experiment. Whether an invention or innovation, it’s usually the process of creating inventions or innovations that interests us.
The HBR story urges a return to the fun and excitement involved in the act of creating, rather than the focus on outcome. “Maybe it’s time we all stopped ‘innovating’ and set our sights on something more meaningful and real,” states writer Bill Taylor. He refers to the latest issue of “Wired,” in which Tim O’Reilly offered his take on innovation: “The myth of innovation is that it starts with entrepreneurs, but it really starts with people having fun…The first kids who made snowboards, they just glued skis together and said, ‘Let’s try this!’ With the Web, none of us thought there was money in it. People said, ‘This document came from halfway around the world. How awesome is that!’”
Taylor, co-founder of “Fast Company” magazine and several books on change, suggests that we start trying to have fun and really do something new. He challenges us to reimagine what’s possible in our field, to think about how we can deliver something in a new way, or how we can make a difference, especially for what we care about.
We don’t all have to be a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs to take on those challenges. Suddenly, innovation isn’t quite as daunting a word.