Want To Do Something New? Stop Using The Word “Innovate”

innovate (ɪnəˌveɪt), verb

1. [no object] make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products: the company’s failure to diversify and innovate competitively

2. [with object] introduce (something new, especially a product):we continue to innovate new products

InnovationI’ve just been at yet another event where everything seemed to hinge on innovation. Now forgive me, but this seems to be one of the most overused words (along with its variations), and I’m not sure that it truly gets anyone anywhere, as the human brain gets to the point of sticking fingers in its metaphorical ears and going “blah, blah” when it hears the word.

Many years back, a very large, three-letter IT vendor carried out extensive research interviews with CEOs of Global 2000 organizations. No mean feat — getting any time from these people requires them to be sure that there’s something at the end of it for them. The report that came out from the research showed that “innovation” was the thing that the majority felt was going to be the lifeblood of their businesses going forward; indeed, without it, they were all going to fail horrendously.

My first question? Was the word “innovation” defined for the purposes of the research? No — and it was accepted that maybe it should have been.

The problem is that innovation is pretty easy to do if you just use a simple dictionary definition. Is an incremental improvement innovation? According to the definition above, it could well be, as a change has been made to something already established. How about bringing something absolutely brand new to market? Maybe not, unless the innovative change is seen as something that wasn’t there before. In marketing, is changing the color or font of a text “innovative” (any marketing people reading this, please do not even think of answering).

To my mind, it is far better to provide more granularity, so that an organization can better gauge what it should be doing, rather than aiming for this amorphous target of being “innovative”.

So, here goes — Quocirca’s patented guide to “being better”: The first stage is to evaluate existing tasks and processes and compare these to where you want the organization to be — a pretty classical gap analysis. Then break down what is required to get you where you want to be into the following areas:

1 – Improve. Identify where things are not being done in the best way, and optimize so that things are being done better. Incremental changes at this level can reap huge rewards.

2 – Innovate. I can’t escape from the need to use innovation in the guide, but it is only one of the aspects.  What is it that you are already doing that needs wholesale change?

3 – Invent. What is it that you are not doing that you should be doing?

For many, the main focus will be in area 1 — improvement costs less that innovation or invention, and the immediate returns can be a lot higher. For others — such as automotive, say — innovation may be more of a focus. For markets such as pharmaceuticals, invention will be far more important.

Such a granular approach helps in setting budgets and in helping to measure the impact of any changes. It also allows organizations to benchmark themselves as to where they are currently — are they laggards having to drag themselves up to the mark through concentrating on improvements, or are they leaders who have the luxury of investing heavily in invention?

In any case, I believe that such a modified way of looking at how changes need to be made in a business is truly innovative — unless, of course, it is just an improvement on what you are already doing.

Image credit: Hampton Roads Partnership (flickr) – CC-BY-2.0