I made what in hindsight is a fairly funny mistake recently. Working with a new client who wanted to become more innovative, we pressed ahead into a project only to realize that their definition of innovation was to have customers interact with their products in a technology showcase. When I think of “innovation” I think of teams using a number of tools and techniques to generate and bring to life new products, services and business models. When this team said “innovation” that’s what I thought, and what I assumed. What they were thinking was something else entirely, and that didn’t become evident until we developed a workplan. Then, the differences in the expectations and definitions were clearly exposed.
We failed at what should be an upfront discussion – that is, what does innovation mean to your firm? I’ve been around innovation so long that if I’m not careful I just assume that corporate executives that I’m working with have the same expectations and definitions as I do, and that can be very problematic. Definitions matter because they drive corporate expectations and commitment. If it seems “innovative” to have your clients interact with your products in a showcase environment, and that adds value to your organization, great. But in my mind that’s not innovation. And also not my client’s fault. It’s mine, for not taking the time to understand what the word “innovation” meant when they used it, and what their expectations and best outcomes were.
Innovation is one of those words like “pornography” that, in the immortal words of the Supreme Court can’t be defined, but we know it when we see it. Our client thinks it will be considered “innovative” if it allows customers to interact with its products in a high tech, high touch environment. They may be right. However, that’s not really “innovation” in my mind, because they are not trying to use the facility to generate new ideas or bring new products and services to market. The center may become a marketing program, meant to create good will and more openness to the market, but not ascertain ideas or seek consumer input. This won’t create new products and may divert funds from other efforts that would create new ideas, so it may be doubly risky, while seeming very innocuous.
The morale of this story is simple. As innane and obvious as it may seem, when the words “innovative” come out of your client’s mouth, stop and ask for an example or a definition. If they can’t provide one, then work with them to create a definition that you, and they, agree is correct, because there’s simply too much room for assumption, and error, when the word is taken at face value. Too many firms, and too many people are simply throwing the word around for advantage, which leads to misguided expectations and disappointed consumers.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.