Innovation Has A Language Problem

Innovation is about making adaptations, improvements, and pathways forward but it can’t do that without our ability to communicate it effectively.

Innovation is what we do when we confront uncertainty and changing conditions and seek a path forward. It’s design in action. Yet, it’s usefulness as a concept is hindered by an overinflation in its importance, role, and confusion about what it does.

Innovation has a language problem. Our ability to use the term innovation effectively determines how we innovate.

Just like the image above, it’s a little hard to know what all we’re looking at. Let’s look at this problem more closely.

Innovation’s Problematic Positions

What makes the term innovation so problematic?

First, innovation is a highly loaded term. We load imagery around technology, mass change, and Silicon Valley on much of the discourse on innovation. We use consultant-speak and TED-talk style approaches to presenting innovation as something exciting, technical, and sophisticated.

Innovation can be those things, but it’s also just as pedestrian as everyday maintenance. It’s not elevated or denigrated.

It’s not maintenance or innovation, it’s recognizing when we need each of them in their time and space.

Secondly, it’s a mistake to immediately conflate excitement with innovation. It certainly can be exciting, but many innovations aren’t. Small tweaks to a procedure, or a slight addition to a process can be innovative. You can be an innovative accountant, school crossing guard, or computer programmer.

Conflating the excitement associated with the innovation and its outcomes is a myth. Among the most notable examples of an innovation that is both boring and powerful is the choice by many jurisdictions to change their organ donation scrips. In these cases, individuals would have to select that they opt-in to being an organ donor and now have to opt-out (although they can still opt-out later, this choice simply indicates the preference of the person). This simple design choice on an administrative form reflects data that shows that most people would prefer to donate their needed organs if they die and can be of help to others. It’s boring, simple and is saving thousands of lives every year worldwide.

We innovate based on a need or desire stemming from a threat or opportunity. Innovation takes place when we’re not satisfied with the status quo. Something’s not serving us and we believe we can improve our situation. That’s it.

There’s nothing special about that.

When we make innovation special, we also make it difficult. That’s where innovation starts to fail.

Innovation Adoption and Practice

The design of an innovation is only as good as the design of a process to implement the innovation. This is where many great ideas, products, processes, and policies fail. An innovation requires a socialization process to raise awareness, explore and manage risks and benefits, and a means to introduce and implement it effectively. A good example of a successful implementation is the Apple iPod that succeeded because of the Apple software ecosystem and iTunes. Other MP3 players might have worked well, but without the connection to an easy-to-use system for accessing music, they struggled to maintain popularity. (Keep in mind that when it was introduced, MP3’s were still unfamiliar to many people.)

Apple designed an entire ecosystem along with its technology to ease the adoption of the new technology by design. The lesson here gets lost in the magnitude of the iPod and it’s cultural significance and that contributes to the myths of innovation and the problems of language. We only need to design a space for people to try something new. When we give people space to try, fail, explore, and extend what they do, we provide the means to innovate.

Innovation does not need to be sexy or dramatic, it just needs to fit in with everyday life. And just like everyday life, much of innovation is mundane, dull, and unsexy.

By treating the concept of innovation with respect — which means not inflating or reducing its role — we might better benefit more from it. I see people turn away from innovation because they see it as overhyped. I see people oversell innovation because they think it’s something magical. It’s both and neither, but it’s still important. As we face cascading climate effects and disruptions from technology, economies and social change innovation is our only way out. That means we need our language straight as so much depends upon it.

Photo by Ruijia Wang on Unsplash

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