Breaking Bad [Buzzwords]

Consultants May Love Them but What The Hell Do They Mean?

Buzzwords, there seems to be no escaping them, but what exactly are they?

a word or phrase, often an item of jargon, that is fashionable at a particular time or in a particular context.

Let’s try an example. ‘Change’. We are constantly being told about ‘change’, and telling others in business they need to be aware of it, but what the hell does it really mean?

I’m sure you are already familiar with “Innovation”, the Buzzword Champion of 2016 which has replaced “Synergy” (2013), “Strategy” (2014), and even last year’s behemoth of “Digital” (2015). 
Yet in a world of constant change, or “disruption”, have we used buzzwords so often to devoid them of real meaning?


Invention or Innovation?
 
To commemorate the 150 years of the UK Patent Office, listeners on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme were asked to vote for their top ten inventions. 
 
While the list included everything from Radio (#2), Computer (#3) and Internal Combustion Engine (#5), Lallemente’s invention of the Bicycle in 1886 took the top spot. Given its job, one might expect the Patent Office to dabble in the space of invention. But what about that of innovation?
 
Often people grasp the element of novelty, which is essential for both innovation and invention. However what really sets the two definitions apart is the commercial applicability, or usefulness derived from the product. 
In short, 
1. Innovation = New + Useful
2. Invention = New (but not necessarily useful)
This is why out of the thousands of new inventions which arise, only a few manage to achieve success. 
 
So to bring it back — whenever you hear of a new “innovative solution” that Steve from the 4th floor is going to be “rolling out”, just remember that if it’s not both new and useful, Steve’s pet project might not be as “cutting edge” as he believes.


The speed of technological advancement is undoubtedly increasing. Major leaps forward are no longer confined to the research labs of top tier Universities or Silicon valley’s shiniest new incubators. So how “new” does “new” need to be to qualify for innovation?
 
Variety in novelty is something we’ve seen already. Both the Apple iPod and the Sony Walkman were both completely new products, the iPod was the first to use MP3 technology to play and store music, and the Walkman provided a way to listen to music whilst on-the-go. Carrying around a Vinyl player doesn’t qualify. 
 
Yet not all things can be completely new. Some item’s can be repositioned to succeed in other markets or areas beyond those for which they were intended. Lucozade’s journey from an isotonic energy drink aimed at elderly people in hospital, was successfully rebranded and directed toward the far more profitable sporting world. Additionally, new-extensions on the same product, either making them more powerful, or different than their original form has also brought unpredicted success. An example being new forms of paracetamol, which are either aimed at children or slow releasing. 
 Given the many brackets of novelty, maybe it is no surprise that the term “innovation” has become common place in everyday life.


Is Disruption King?

‘Disruption’ like ‘Innovation’ has crept into the vocabulary of people associated with consulting or entrepreneurial dreams. We’ve seen the rise of the Unicorns, start-up companies valued at over $1 billion, and Gazelles, companies with a 20% or higher ‘exceptional’ growth rate. Companies which grow both hard and fast have transformed some industries entirely, think Google and Amazon. 
Yet with every start-up seeking to “disrupt” the market, have we forgotten what disruption actually refers too?

“Disruption” is Clayton Christensen’s term for;

an innovation which creates a new market, or value network which displaces an existing market

So while we all like to think of new companies entering markets and entirely changing them — we have to question ourselves and ask if they really are.
 Typically, most “disruptors” tend to enter markets via “side entrance strategy”, or from outside the typical market. They are unknown, untested, and usually perceived to be no threat, or not even known to companies within the industry.

Realistically, do many Goliath size companies think of tiny (lesser than David sized) firms as competition? of course not, why? because even if they are displaying innovative tendencies, their technology isn’t as good, and typically they are targeting smaller market niches which they don’t really care about. Why would you care about a tiny customer segment if you are supplying the entire market?


So what really sets disruptors apart? it’s their effect on the market over time. It’s that grind so often associated with the mentality of start ups. Over time, that niche customer supply might enable greater improvements to their tech, increase the firms reputation, and enable them to start competing in other area’s of the market. It’s often the ‘protective’ strategies of larger established companies on their ‘customers’ which eventually lead them to forget the changing habits of consumers — and they start bleeding market share.

Let’s look at Uber. Many academics viewed companies such as Uber, despite their rapid growth, to be an Incremental Innovation — one which had just expanded their offerings on customer mobility and operational scheduling. Yet, with Uber able to undercut many existing taxi-firms out of the market and even change country and state law, it is already a leading example of industry disruption.


To close, I don’t doubt that there has to be some use of the buzzwords which permeate our LinkedIn and Forbes articles. However, amongst all the “buzz” and clamour to popularise terms, maybe we can start provide a solid layer to these wooly terms. 
Both innovation and disruption are huge — but we can only truly appreciate it once we understand it. As G.I Joe’s slogan states, “knowing is half the battle”.

GH