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Christian Bason

Why is innovation a terrible word?

By July 12th 2010

I’ve had my government-issue HTC smartphone for a while, but it wasn’t until recently that I noticed that the phone maker has written ‘htc innovation’ with miniscule letters on the side of the unit. As if the company wanted to make really sure that I realise I am holding an innovative piece of technology. Probably the wording was slashed on last-minute by the marketing people. ‘It can’t hurt’, they might have been thinking. Who doesn’t want innovation?

Innovation is everywhere, and everyone is claiming it. From my phone maker to producers of washing detergent to space agencies and national governments, innovation is something many people agree is somehow important, but few can really express how. ‘Innovation’ becomes a panacea for any problem because, in essence, it expresses that whatever the challenge is, it is being dealt with successfully. But like a wet bar of soap, ‘innovation’ somehow eludes a firm grip. Paradoxically, we want it, but can’t really express it. That is why, when we at MindLab drafted our communication strategy three years ago, it stated that “‘Innovation’ is a terrible word. But there’s nothing wrong with its content”.

How does innovation become a terrible word? In organisations that are not used to working in new ways, which do not enthusiastically embrace new ideas, and which do not necessarily thrive on on-going change, innovation can become a diffuse, abstract and perhaps even dangerous term. Innovation may be perceived as  anything from wild creativity, ‘letting your hair down’, to a management fad, or to loosing control to risky experimentation. No wonder that some people, and in my experience in particular people in government, dislike the word.

However, if ‘innovation’ wasn’t part of our vocabulary, we’d have to invent it. Innovation is the only term we have that captures the notion of creating something new that works. It embodies the dialectic of inspiration (generating the new ideas we need to create the future we want) and execution (the practice of getting things done to create value).

As opposed to ‘creativity’ or ‘invention’, innovation is therefore, and perhaps surprising to some, highly practical. The best of  the (vast) literature on innovation not only offers extremely useful perspectives on strategy, leadership and organisation. It offers a set of professional approaches, tools and methods which can help make the process of creating the new solutions we need, whether it be a new product or a public service, conscious, strategic and systematic.

Because the concept and practice of innovation offers us something valuable, or even essential, we need to take very seriously those who dismiss it. Rather than just slapping the word on everything we, as scholars and practitioners, say or do, we must take care to give it the meaning and content needed for the sceptics to become curious and, eventually, embrace it.

But to place the practice of innovation more squarely at the heart of government, we need to continue to show what it is, and how it works in practice. That is why we at MindLab spend so much time documenting and sharing our cases with others within the ministries we are part of, and beyond — online and in person. To be convincing, innovation has to be concrete.

As for my phone? Well, it works OK. But honestly? There are more innovative models out there.

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