There’s something about the culture of business that tends toward excess — in financial markets, to be sure, but also in the “market” for new ideas and management techniques. The dynamic is always the same, whether the idea in question is reengineering, six-sigma quality, or lean production systems: A genuinely original strategy is born in one company or industry, consultants discover the practice and turn it into a marketable commodity, executives in all sorts of other companies race to “buy” the product — and then they wonder why the technique didn’t work nearly as well in their organization as it did in the place that created it in the first place.
I fear that very dynamic is unfolding today with respect to a piece of language and a leadership aspiration that has become the Holy Grail for business thinkers like me.
That piece of language, that aspiration, is innovation.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, which did not get nearly the attention it deserved, made the case that the word “innovation” has outlived its usefulness. “Companies are touting chief innovation officers, innovation teams, innovations strategies, and even innovation days,” the hard-hitting piece noted. “But that doesn’t mean the companies are actually doing any innovating. Instead they are using the word to convey monumental change when the progress they’re describing is quite ordinary.”
Ouch, that’s gonna leave a mark! But I have to admit, as someone who spends a huge amount of time thinking, writing, and lecturing about new ways to build and lead organizations, theJournal‘s no-nonsense pushback deserves serious consideration. Maybe it’s time we all stopped “innovating” and set our sights on something more meaningful and real.
Now, I’m all for leaders who want to ramp up the energy of their colleagues to take more chances and challenge conventional wisdom. But what strikes me about the organizations I’ve encountered that are genuinely innovative is that they rarely use the language of innovation to describe what they do or why they do it. As they unleash new products and services, find exciting new ways to do the stuff they’ve always done, or identify new markets in which to do business, these companies simply do what makes sense and what comes naturally. They change what needs to change, because it’s the only way they can achieve what they want to achieve.
Southwest Airlines never said, “We want to be the country’s most innovative airline.” Its leadership said, “We want to ‘democratize the skies’ and give rank-and-file Americans the freedom to fly.” They perfected a new way to be an airline by virtue of what they wanted to achieve as an airline. They did what made sense to them, even if their strategies made no sense to the legacy carriers.
Tony Hsieh and his colleagues at Zappos never said, “We want to introduce innovations to e-commerce and do a better job of selling shoes over the Internet.” They said, “We wanted to build the greatest customer-service brand in the world, a company whose mission is not simply to deliver products but to deliver happiness.” Thus Zappos created a special culture, a unique way of doing business, and an almost mythic status among its customers, who have given the company permission to sell all sorts of products above and beyond shoes.
Cirque du Soleil did not set out to make a few tweaks to the traditional three-ring circus, or market-test a few new acts as a way to offer innovations vis-a-vis Ringling Brothers. Rather, an immensely talented group of street performers set out to define a whole new category of live entertainment, a creative leap that made perfect sense to the artists who dreamed it up, but made no sense to circus veterans or to audiences who had never seen such shows before.
In other word, the moment that “innovation” becomes just another leadership program, yet another consultant-driven management technique, one more piece of language in what my friend Polly LaBarre calls the “jargon monoxide” that defines so much of business life, it ceases to be a positive force for change.
In the latest issue of Wired, Tim O’Reilly, the brilliant technology thinker and book publisher, offered his corrective on innovation, in this case with respect to entrepreneurs: “The myth of innovation is that it starts with entrepreneurs, but it really starts with people having fun. The Wright brothers weren’t trying to build an airline, they were saying, ‘Holy shit, do you think we could fly?’ 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!'”
So what if we all stopped trying to “innovate” — and started trying to have fun and really do something new? And what if we set ourselves a more basic (and more authentic) set of challenges as we look to the future:
What difference are we trying to make in our field? What do we care about?
How can we reimagine the sense of what’s possible in our field? What can we do that no one else in our business can do?
How can we deliver what we’ve always delivered, but in entirely new ways?
How can we apply what we’ve always been great at to markets or customer segments we’ve never worked with?
Remember, if you try to innovate the same way everyone else tries to innovate, it’s hard to imagine you’ll be very, well, innovative.