Innovation Is A Dangerous Word


Words matter. While we labor over every syllable of ad copy, we allow ourselves an excessive level of ambiguity with the words we use to describe our ideas to our clients. This is a problem, as we tend to confuse our partners. We often confuse ourselves.

Innovation is one of these words. While I’m relatively clear on what it means to me, I’m constantly baffled by what it could mean to others. What follows isn’t a definition of the word, but rather, a set of thoughts that help give it meaning to me.

Innovation is not driven by epiphany.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but eureka moments are few and far between. They rock…I love having them. The reality is that the best innovations are born out of hard work and diligence. “Aha!” moments may help you jump a hurdle or two along the way, but they are no substitute for immersing yourself in a subject and constantly chipping away at a complex challenge.

Innovation does not equal invention.

That’s not to say that innovation and invention don’t overlap at times, but they are not synonymous. Innovation is often about an alternate approach to a challenge that leverages existing processes, techniques, or technologies. The freedom of invention, creating something that didn’t exist before, can be completely overwhelming, and perhaps impossible for most people. Innovation, on the other hand, isn’t about starting from scratch, but rather, approaching something from a different direction, adding or subtracting variables to change the situation, or simply mixing things up to see what falls out of an exploration.

The path is unpredictable.

If you think you know where you’re going to end up, then either you’ve already solved your problem, or you’ve tied an arm behind your back. One of the joys of innovating is the freedom to wander through your thought process. Oftentimes, you discover answers to questions you didn’t know you had, which may turn out to be innovations in and of themselves. It’s completely necessary to start out with a question to answer, but completely unnecessary to start out with an end-state in mind.

One can’t be made to seem innovative.

You are or you are not. Being made to seem innovative is counter to the whole point. The effort that you make to cultivate an aura of innovation can just as easily be applied towards innovation itself, which begets the original outcome. If you only want to be seen as innovative, you’re missing the primary benefit, which is to advance your business.

History is the enemy of innovation.

If there is one thing that I never want to hear again it’s, “we tried that before and it didn’t work.” If that’s you’re perspective, then it’s time to do something new. While being aware of history ensures that you don’t relive mistakes of the past, it also blinds you to the possibilities of the future. Given the speed of technological evolution I would argue that even if you attempted the same experiment three times across three years, each attempt would yield different outcomes. Perhaps the audience changed? Maybe a new product made a complicated process trivial? What if your timing was slightly off in a previous attempt?

I’ve admittedly chosen to focus on a single word, while many words are abused by our industry to the point of meaninglessness: engagement, insight, experience, to name just a few. We are an industry built on a love of words. It’s our responsibility to use them appropriately, with care and respect, lest we devalue one of our most important tools.