Today’s Wall Street Journal included an article about the dilution of the term “innovation.” Yes, the word “innovation” has been overused and misused, but that it not to say that companies should not continue to pursue innovations.
On the contrary, what the article points to is the need for applying rigor in using the term. Innovation is not the incremental improvements made to products and services to improve quality and experience, or to gain efficiencies and cost savings. Rather, innovation is fundamentally something that is disruptive AND replicable because–to use another overused term–it is also ideally scalable.
A previous boss of mine got flummoxed in how the agency should differentiate “creativity” from “innovation.” Since I like to simplify matters, I offered a simple distinction: Innovation is replicable creativity.
While creativity and innovation both need to meet the criteria of being disruptive, creativity is an idea that might or might not be able to replicated and scaled. Creativity is often its most powerful at a particular moment in time, when it shakes our complacency of thinking or feeling with something new and evocative.
In contrast, innovation not only needs to be disruptive–to do something significantly different or in a significantly different way–it also needs to be something that can be applied and repeated so it persists over some period of time.
That is not to say that everything that we pursue should be innovative or even creative.
Incremental improvements in efficiency, productivity and quality are all valuable and have their role in today’s successful organization. But at the same time, companies need to get their heads around the prospects of embracing the disruptive nature of innovation and creativity if they want to succeed in the long term. Schumpeter wrote about this a long time ago, as have many others since then. Think Jim Collins and Clayton Christensen, for instance.
What all of those writers were fundamentally getting at is that innovation is far from a simple thing to achieve, especially during the early stages when the fear of cannibalization and failure, along with the allure of inertia and incrementalism, provide convenient cover to avoid making the tough calls to turn what looks to be a promising innovation into reality. But embracing the mindset and experimentation necessary to enable real innovation is essential for long-term success. It just takes guts to pull it off. Lots of guts.