June 7, 2019
Business buzzwords tend to be overused, and they are undergoing a robust critique these days. For instance, in André Spicer’s book Business Bullshit, much is made of how empty certain phrases, such as “taking ownership,” “getting your ducks in a row,” or (my own pet peeve) “thinking outside the box,” can be. What has been remarked on less is a very specific variation of this—namely what happens when a critical term or concept becomes emptied of meaning by way of overuse. I would argue that “innovation,” a perennial favorite in the corporate vernacular, is just such a case.
No one would argue that innovation is unimportant in business or in the economy more broadly. At the same time, most people would agree that the word has suffered something of an inflation in recent decades. Whereas it used to be a term used by economists to describe specific shifts in technology and the economy, today it is used for nearly everything.
As a consequence, we’re starting to see new ailments afflict the contemporary corporation, ailments I’ve referred to as “innovation fatigue” (where endless exhortations to be more innovative elicit ever weaker responses) and “innovation stress” (where the lack of clarity around innovation creates tension and strain among employees). A key element in all of this is a perceived loss of meaning, so that the term “innovation” is no longer considered as meaningful as it might once have been.
So what is a manager to do in a situation where a significant number of employees exhibit a lack of faith concerning innovation? Having studied cases where this has occurred, I’ve looked at ways in which one can show innovation leadership in a situation where the term itself has become contested. Here are three suggestions, developed from my notes regarding corrective measures:
Exemplify and de-dramatize. A key issue when innovation is starting to be perceived as a meaningless business buzzword is that employees no longer know what is meant by it. If managers speak about innovation only in broad, abstract ways, it follows that employees will see it as a term with no concrete content.
Good leaders make innovation meaningful by picking simple, easy-to-grasp examples that feel achievable. This makes it something more tangible in their organizations. A central element here is to de-dramatize it all. If innovation is only connected to industry heroics and massive successes such as those of Apple and Netflix, you risk making it all seem unattainable. Look instead for less radical yet uplifting stories to create a more approachable innovation narrative.
Refocus on purpose. If a company’s actions indicate that it is only interested in innovation for innovation’s sake, this situation is highly likely to increase innovation fatigue. Leaders would do well to clearly communicate that innovation is something the company engages with to fulfill a greater purpose—be it to eradicate illness, to support a specific group or community, or to drive the greater purpose of the company. When you link innovation to a purpose, employees are more likely to see how their engagement with the concept holds greater meaning.
Allow for reflection. The very best innovation leaders do not treat innovation as a given, but rather engage their people in deep conversations about it—the why, how, where, and what of innovation. By listening to their employees and understanding their take on the subject, without prejudice or judgment, a leader can find a number of ways in which otherwise engaged innovators have let stress and innovation fatigue take over.
It isn’t enough just to badger people into giving their all (particularly if it is unclear what this “all” is), so sometimes doing innovation work means asking pointed questions about what it is all about. An organization may need radical questioning before a new innovation mindset can be built.