Innovation’s big problem: its now cliche

Cliches never start out as clichés. They are born out of poetry, new ways of seeing and thinking, or current trends in language. The first time someone talked about “thinking outside the box”, they were really on to something. In the short period when only a few have adopted a new term, it becomes a sort of fashionable linguistic accessory. Then, eventually, the masses notice what’s going on and crash the party. Before long, another once-sparkling phrase has gone all ”Woo Woo” on us.

Many people in the innovation business think that language is like software- more users results in more power. It doesn’t work like that — in fact, the opposite is true.

Last week, the Liberal Party of Canada’s 2017 budget was rolled out with a substantial investment in innovation and science. This new budget provides $1.18 billion this year for skills and innovation. Canada 150 Celebrations have focused mostly on the innovative contributions of Canadians throughout our history. And, in the 2017 Federal Budget, the word innovation is mentioned 227 times. This is a problem.

The increased investments and ramped up promotion of “innovation” has failed to inspire the kind of attitudinal change required for Canada to become a real innovation heavy-weight. In 2017 for the first time, this might be a huge problem.

As Peter Nicholson points out in the journal Canadian Public Policy: our business community’s downstream status has enabled Canadians to maintain a prosperous standard of living despite neglecting the necessary business of developing new products and services.

We may not be able to coast on this much longer. As the rate of technological change increases in every industry, it is not clear for how long Canada will be able to get by while being incompetent at innovation.

It starts with language. Clichés will not get us there; they crush the positivity and energy that financial investments are meant to inspire. When it comes to language, it’s not about scale. It’s about quality and uniqueness. When we speak purely in clichés, we put people off and lose their attention.

We’d do well to keep two things in mind:

1. Resist the allure of the sensational. Pay no attention to the over-used buzzwords in current conversations around innovation. We need to be more straightforward, which makes writing and speaking more difficult, but ultimately more gainful.

2. Tell the story only you can tell. We are not Silicon Valley, and we should not adopt every buzzword which emerges from there. When we tell stories that are derivative, we lose the more interesting story which is, simply, our own. The best way to avoid cliché is with sincerity.

Whether you’re “raising the bar”, “growth hacking”, “disrupting”, or “moving the needle”, find a straight-forward, fresh way to describe your work. The current government’s investments in science and innovation have the potential to create enormous benefits for but first, investments in language must be made properly in words and phrases that can inspire us.