Why Innovation Is Just Another Buzzword

The term “innovation” is tossed around like Unsplash photos on Medium. There are innovation consultants, innovation awards and the startup world wouldn’t even exist without innovations. But what is innovation even all about?

When people talk about innovation, they often mean breakthrough technologies that “haven’t been there before”. For example sharing economy platforms like Airbnb and Uber or devices like the iPhone.

Sure, all of them have been changing entire markets. But have they truly been innovative products that came out of nowhere? Or have they rather been part of a slow process that took place right in front of our eyes — and we were just having a hard time anticipating it?

Grasping disruption

Considering the historical evolution of technology, I would vote for the second option. Products are often being marketed as something revolutionary. Beauty products, HiFi systems and cars are just some examples of consumer goods that didn’t change significantly over the past decades. And yet they’re constantly being promoted as something “breakthrough”. However, what is being sold as something completely new is often just a part of an enduring evolution, an ongoing convergence of the old and the new.

Many innovations are old

Lots of innovative products have already been introduced a long time ago. But they didn’t get the recognition that they got when being reintroduced years later. It is natural to say that the iPhone was the first real smartphone. And nobody would strike on the idea that it was actually IBM, who firstly released a smartphone in 1992 (Some say the Nokia 9000 Communicator was the first actual smart phone but you get the point). could be what Netflix is today. And if the timing would have been different, we might use Beenz instead of Bitcoins as a digital currency. But the world is not always ready for what turns out to be groundbreaking at some point.

So why a buzzword?

The enduring evolution of innovation and the problem of finding the right timing for innovative ideas can make it very tricky to grasp disruption. In retrospect, it is of course comparably easy to notice innovation. Especially when one’s own business field got turned upside down. If they could, the guys from Kodak probably won’t ignore the innovation potential of digital photography again.

Even if one just takes the digitization of photography as an example, there’s no doubt that innovation has left its mark. Yet, I still think that innovation has become an empty word. Why’s that?

Not a new experience

Firstly, for historical reasons. Many of the experiences we make as part of the digitalization are really nothing new. The globalization and the unpredictability of where modern technology will take us were already fundamental experiences during the industrialization in the 19th century. And also the electrification in the 20th century, accompanied by new media like photography and film, evoked similar experiences to what we encounter in the 21st century. The media revolution of the 20th century has been perceived as a fundamental disruption, similar to the digital transformation today.

Innovation — for a lack of a better word

Secondly, because of the general overuse of the term “innovation”. To cite an example: 45% of the DAX (German Stock Index) companies use “innovation” as a brand value. (Have the executive floors in German corporations ever heard of strategic differentiation?)

Looking at the innovation potential of one of Germany’s biggest industrial sectors, the automotive industry, the question arises if BMW, Volkswagen, Opel and Mercedes-Benz even understand that innovation means to be so radically different that the competition cannot follow up. Ultimately, running after Tesla is not that innovative.

And if we take a look at the startup world, the impression is not too different. In his great piece “I’m Done Pretending SF Tech Is Visionary” Marco Marandiz writes: “In Silicon Valley, there is an entrepreneur on every corner, and a new you-sit-at-home-naked-while-i-do-your-shopping app every week. Only a handful of companies, proportionally speaking, are actually trying to do things that will have a meaningful impact (…).”

Final thoughts

Of course, not everybody can be the next Thomas Edison or Leonardo DaVinci. But creating “the next Airbnb of” is definitely not innovative. Creating a startup clone factory like Rocket Internet is not innovative. And creating another weather app is not innovative either.

Don’t get me wrong, innovation is great. And there should be more companies truly focussing on it. But just using the word as a shiny label is simply not enough.