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Innovation Is Not Overrated

Last Updated Jul 29, 2008 2:15 PM EDT

I was catching up on Sean Silverthorne's excellent blog and found this link to a post by Scott Berkun on Why Innovation is Overrated.
Berkun makes a few reasonable points -- most people don't talk about 'innovation' in everyday conversation. Where it does get used, it's done so broadly the term can seem almost useless. But the truth is, innovation is straightforward. It means something new. Nothing tendentious, nothing self-important.

Businesspeople might look back at Clay Christensen's take on innovation from "The Innovator's Dilemma." He defines innovation very simply as a change in technology. Technology he defines broadly as the ways in which firms do what they do. "All firms have technologies," he writes, citing the difference between how Sears and Costco buy, display and sell. As Christensen says, "The concept of technology therefore extends beyond engineering and manufacturing to encompass a range of marketing, investment and managerial processes."

But Berkun seems to be saying 'innovation' is the new 'interesting,' as in, 'please don't bore me anymore.' It's as though using the word 'innovate' actually stifles the process of creation. He recommends words like 'solve' and 'risk' and 'experiment.' And especially, the phrase 'make great things that people love.'

Wonderful. Let's not be innovative. Let's be a subjective noun-phrase. If companies follow his advice, most of our economy will grind to a halt. Can't you see the meetings now? "Well, I just don't love this idea. It's okay, but..." Apple would never have introduced the iPod -- it wasn't a great product people loved for at least a year after it was introduced. Google would be out of business, since nobody loved it for quite some time after it was founded, which gave it time to figure out how to take a dull tool and give it a business reason to exist, at which point it became useful enough that people could start to like it.

Berkun's bias seems to boil down to 'innovation' being a $2 synonym for 'new.' But he doesn't really think innovation is overrated. He wants firms to innovate. He just doesn't want them to call it that. He's been marketed about innovation too much, and it's jaded him. Guess what: I feel the same way about what's happened to his word 'solve.' You want overrated? 'Solutions' are overrated.

I'd be more impressed if he'd argued that innovation is overdone. Companies kill perfectly good products all the time for the sake of replacing it with something new, as if that helps them prove they're innovative. Despite this unfortunate habit, it's essential that businesses keep trying new things. They have to innovate, or face the consequences.
  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.