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Published on March 20th, 2015 | by David Bott

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The life-cycle of that “innovation” word

There is common agreement that “innovation” is important. Individuals aspire to be described as innovative, companies use it as a description of their products and processes and governments boast of their support for it. But what does it mean and does everyone agree on that definition?

I first ran into this use of the word “innovation” in 2004, when I started working with the Department of Trade and Industry as they developed their plans for what became the Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK), but I’m not sure I ever used the word before that. Throughout my career in the chemical/materials industry, we carried out “research and development” or “product development” or “process development”. To my knowledge, the word innovation only really came to be used to describe these activities somewhere in the 90’s, but was not mainstream. Once it was established as a “good” word, its use expanded rapidly and it has been applied all over the place. But what does it mean? And are we in danger of over-using it and devaluing it?

The basic dictionary definition for the noun “innovation” is the process or output of doing something new. Its roots are in Latin and also give us the word novelty – which, interestingly, has acquired a mildly pejorative air. However, its use to describe the process of turning the understanding gained in scientific research into commercial products and processes has evolved over time. An old friend who studies languages once told me that the true meaning of a word can be illuminated by its synonyms. In the case of innovation, the list looks like this – change, alteration, revolution, upheaval, transformation, metamorphosis, reorganization, restructuring, rearrangement, recasting, remodelling, renovation, restyling, variation; new measures, new methods, new devices, novelty, newness, unconventionality, modernization, modernism; a break with tradition, a shift of emphasis, a departure, a change of direction. What is interesting to me is that most of these words imply a level of disruption, and that, I think, lies at the heart of the use of the word innovation in business. Business is all about growth. I have known many people from business over the last 40 years and they all start from the assumption that the absence of growth is failure. Growth requires doing something new – whether it is a new product, a new process, a new source of supply, a new market or even a new way of doing business – and all these come with risk. Innovation is therefore, almost inexorably, associated with risk. And the encouragement of innovation (in the business sense) must therefore involve the management of risk.

It appears that the UK Government started this use of the word in the early 90’s and is still its most consistent patron. It was the 2003 publication of the Innovation Report that firmly defined their use of the word as the application of knowledge for commercial advantage. Over the intervening years, the precision of its use has varied and many have used its apparent fashionability to lend weight to whatever they were promoting. So we now have innovative science as well as innovative business. Having worked at the interface between science and business for most of my career, I am certain that they are different activities, and that there is no simple sausage machine that allows you to put money into science and guarantees its output as more profitable business. That said, without science there is no technology – science is about understanding the world to the point where it is possible to explain that understanding to others and technology is about applying that understanding for benefit (both social and commercial). It is just not a linear process – no matter how often politicians or investors like to think it is.

This state of affairs reminds me of the “peak of inflated expectations” phase in the hype cycle. The next phase would therefore be the “trough of disillusionment”. And the first signs of this have broken cover recently.

Over the last few months, I have noted a number of articles questioning the once unquestionable power of the word innovation to make funders weak at the knees. First came a newsletter from the excellent Jonne Ceserani quoting “Recent research by a large multinational organisation concluded that the word ‘innovation’ has become so overused that it no longer has any useful meaning for their customers. Indeed, it is positively damaging because the perception is that ‘innovation’ is rather boring incremental stuff. Imagination is no longer part of the organisational psyche.” He then goes on to muse over the evolution and (effective) trivialisation of once powerful words and pleads for a return to their core meanings.

Next came an article in a Raconteur supplement to the Times. Charles Orton Jones starts his article bemoaning the overuse of the word innovation. He even includes a mild reproof to my ex-colleagues at Innovate UK for them changing their name and assuming it will makes things different. He has a good point. I recently walked around a business park and noted that of the 20 companies located there, 18 of them had the word innovative in their name or strapline. Despite hope, using the word as an adjective does not change the essential nature of whatever noun you are qualifying. I have a bit of a problem with the second half of the article, where he links the enthusiasm for the word innovation to the failure in the development of some ideas – “was innovation making us careless of risk and thereby courting failure?” was the drift I read. Since my experience in business leads me to believe that those in business look for growth first and then post justify why they do it, I think his logic is flawed, but if we really start to believe that doing new things is wrong and therefore avoid them, then we are in for a really rough time. Once we start producing “novelty” products, we will be on a down slope in so many ways.

Language is a wonderful tool, and as open source as it comes, but we need to be wary of confusing the word and the associated deed. There are many people in this country trying to make things better – both socially and commercially – by doing new things. Having a term to describe this activity is important, and it needs to have an agreed definition. We need to get the use of the word “innovation” on the “plateau of productivity” and stop mis-using it if we are to have a meaningful conversation about how to achieve this faster and farther.

by

David Bott is Principal Fellow at WMG. After 26 years with BP, Courtaulds and ICI, spent in both their corporate centres and business units, David began a love affair with start-ups 10 years ago. He was diverted into spending 7 years setting up and directing the Technology Strategy Board (now rebranded as Innovate UK), the UK's innovation agency.

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