Is innovation a dirty word?

January 28, 2019

A friend of mine, let’s call him Dave, is the Director of Emerging Technologies at a F500 company. The week after Thanksgiving, he told me something remarkable.

He’d forbidden his team from using the word “innovation” to describe what they do.

To me it sounded a tad too militant. But he had his reasons. Dave’s “innovation” team is a sub-set of the company’s global R&D organization. And this particular global R&D organization tends to believe everything they do is innovation. Dave worried (rightly) that an “innovation” team would be shunned by their own colleagues.

The optics matter, a lot. Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. As early-stage projects gain traction, success depends on teamwork and support from other parts of the organization. Market tests and product launches must be conducted. Successful prototypes need to be transitioned into manufacturing scale. And so on.

There are a variety of justifiable concerns like Dave’s. Some folks will assume the innovation team is just theater and tune out. Naming an “innovation” team may make everyone else less innovative – they think it’s not their job anymore. And innovation teams often succumb to an endless parade of executive pet projects and assorted boondoggles.

And yet, innovation job titles are on the rise. New innovation teams and innovation-themed corporate initiatives sprout up constantly. Fundamentally that’s because the pace of technology change continues to accelerate, and the attendant forces of disruption are multiplying. As such, many leaders feel they can’t afford not to use a charged descriptor like innovation.

A word like Innovation (with a capital I) can send a powerful message to your company: not-invented-here syndrome won’t cut it anymore. As the world changes, our entire organization needs to learn new tricks. As we innovate, we have to be more agile and customer-focused. We need to explore next-gen business models and emerging technologies, not just product line extensions and marketing tweaks. It’s a brave new world, and we’re embracing change head-on.

If there’s a visceral reaction to the word “innovation” in your organization, take a step back. Consider what you’re trying to achieve. Will it be necessary to launch a full-scale change management program? Or can you build an innovation program organically, from the ground up, starting more under-the-radar? In driving internal optics, the nature of the mission must be your guide.




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