Why I’m sick of hearing about innovation

I was at a large entrepreneurial event the other day as I gestured to my friend, “Hey, do you want to play innovation bingo?”

“Sounds fun, how do you play?” he inquired.

“Well, every time you hear some version of the word innovation (innovations, innovative, etc), you take a drink.”

Needless to say, my friend was pretty tipsy by the end of the event. But let’s get one thing straight, I’m not anti-innovation. I believe it’s a heavily overused buzz term to describe a process most people know little about.

Part of the fatal flaw is that we look to the results or the “what” of innovation, a big cardboard check written to a startup company, a new gadget, and the not the “how”. I believe that innovation holds many different forms — it’s about process, culture, and creating a structure to solve difficult problems with often limited resources.

While I was a Coro Fellow, one of my peers was charged with a daunting corporate project, identify ways their department could be more innovative. This business was wise to bring a third party into investigate and uncover what made that particular department click (Coro Fellows are excellent detectives). Some of the key questions they asked included:

  • What barriers prevent new ideas or processes from being implemented?
  • What the appetite for risk in this organization? For failure?
  • How does the department’s leadership respond to new ideas?
  • Who is an advocate for innovation in the department?

But this is unlike the approach most corporations take. They create entities like “innovation” labs so their leadership can check the proverbial box and continue to live with the status quo. Often times these initiatives fail because they are not given the respect, resources, or freedom to making sweeping (and often necessary) changes to the culture of the organization.

Innovation is more than whiteboards and ping pong tables. It’s more than hackathons and business plan competitions.

We look at what most people consider obviously innovative companies like Google and Facebook and try to copy things we can see on the surface. Casual or non-existent dress codes. A kegerator next to the water cooler. But is this really the secret sauce to landing on Forbes’ most innovative companies list?

Amazon.com is continually ranked among the world’s most innovative companies for several reasons. Starting several years ago as mostly a book retailer, they’ve experimented and succeeded at developing new business lines (e.g. Amazon Prime for video and the Kindle, a physical product). And yet this is innovation the public can see, through new ways to consume content. But don’t you ever sit and wonder what happens between the moment you hit “Order Now” and when that package arrives at your door in just two days? I would argue an incredible amount of innovative thinking was involved in optimizing their operational processes. From order fulfillment, logistics, to inventory management, the Amazon process is all but invisible to the consumer.

Innovation extends beyond science, beyond technology, and even entrepreneurship. It is not bound to any particular sector or business structure.

Now it’s your turn. What does innovation look like for you?