Say no to "Innovation in General"

This post originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review in January of 2014

I had just arrived at a conference on entrepreneurship and the only panel I wanted to see was starting. I looked down at my watch and realized that I was already 5 minutes late so I dropped my bags and ran to the next building.

The subject was intrapreneurship and it seemed like the organizers had collected an all-star panel; two Googlers, an early Facebooker, one of the recent additions to the Paypal team, and one of the IBM leads on the Watson project. For over an hour, the panel discussed all of the innovative projects they’d worked on — spanning projects from Google Fiber to ad bidding technologies at Facebook.

Now, while I can’t speak for everyone else in the room, I found myself leaving the discussion disappointed.

Yes, all of the panelists were speaking broadly on innovative projects. But innovation is a word that means a wide variety of things to a wide variety of people. Without more specification, “innovation” is simply too broad to execute against. It’s like talking about creating art, without specifying between medium. Are you painting, sculpting, filmmaking, or rapping?

At its highest level, innovation is simply where ideation meets commercialization. Innovation is both the new color of Crayola crayon as well as the iPad app that completely replaces the need for Crayola crayons in the eyes of children everywhere. Because of the vast space between these, the astute manager shouldn’t simply aspire to innovation in general. It doesn’t give his team enough to go on. One employee might come back with a thousand different colors for new crayons, while another suggests strategic adjacencies with construction paper, while the final suggests a partnering with Adobe to deliver a drawing application. Yes all three are innovative. But simply claiming that they are innovative projects neglects the point that they really are entirely different in nature.

Without differentiating between things like sustaining and disruptive innovations, the conversation never directs managers to the nitty-gritty details where new products and services live or die.

It’s no wonder there is such widespread backlash against innovation today. Everyone from the Wall Street Journal to Techcrunch has an opinion on innovation overload. But I’d argue that the real problem with our innovation zeitgeist isn’t that the quality of ideas is diminishing, it’s that we’re talking about the bold audacious bets in the same way we’re talking about the unheralded incremental ones. We’re considering little league and Major League baseball the same, just because they’re both baseball.

In the research world, innovation is a term one rarely hears in a vacuum. Instead of rolling off the tongue by itself, academics modify the term innovation with all sorts of other words that specify exactly what phenomenon they’re talking about. And while not all lessons from academia do apply to the business world, this is certainly one place that hard-nosed managers and pointy-headed intellectuals should agree; because when it comes to innovation, our muddled-generic language represents muddled-generic thinking — not the clarity of thinking that should be driving multi-billion dollar investment decisions.

It’s easy to poke fun at the lengthening list of specific types of innovation, from Continuous to Reverse to Sustaining to Disruptive to Platform and beyond. But as we accept that leadership comes in many forms, from managing crises to coaching employees, we need to do the same when it comes to innovation.

Our lack of thoughtfulness on the subject has kept us from investing and concentrating on the innovations that matter most. Increased attention on innovation by businesspeople has led to millions more executives with “innovation” in their sights, but far fewer with a deep understanding of what the word means.

Innovation simply isn’t one thing. It’s a wide variety of things. It’s the sustaining innovations that will drive profitability across your core business units. It’s the continuous technological innovations that will exploit your fixed asset base. It’s the disruptive innovations that will help you drive your business into the next era of your industry’s evolution. It’s the reverse innovations to help you penetrate new markets and return lessons from different geographies.

And your business needs all of it. But each aspect of it needs to be managed distinctly. Build a shared language for innovation in your organization, set up the structures to pursue each type of innovation correctly, and invest in the team that can guide you through the process.

If you’re feeling burned out on innovation, don’t let your new years resolution be to say no to innovation… let it be to say no to innovation-in-general.