From “Innovation, Growth, and Getting to Where You Want to Go” in Building Design Strategy: Using Design to Achieve Key Business Objectives
“We need to be more innovative.” As a reader of this book, you have probably voiced that sentiment hundreds of times. And no doubt you have heard at least one business leader say, “We want to be our industry’s innovation leader” or, “We need a breakthrough innovation.”
Umm, no, I never have. And I hope you haven’t either. Anyone who talks like this is probably also mouthing other industry cliches like “out-of-the-box” and “paradigm shift.”
Business leaders don’t want “innovation” just like they didn’t want “quality” alone in the 1980s. There is no innovation by itself, it exists only in the context of a product or service. It’s difficult to rally around something intangible like innovation. You can’t point to it or hold it in your hand. Alone, it is not going to make your stock price go up. Instead, it’s an attribute like “useful,” “usable,” and “beautiful.” Saying, “We need a breakthough innovation” is as ridiculous as saying, “We need breakthough usability,” or, “Get me some breakthough beauty!”
Innovation is best used as the adjective “innovative.” Businesspeople (aka human beings) want innovative products and services, not “innovation,” which some business authors would have you believed can be released in the air vents or packaged in a stimulus bill. It’s not a thing.
Innovation derives from how, why, or what is made (or, in the case of services, provided). Like profit, it is a byproduct of making something unique and valuable. We’ve fetishized innovation for its own sake. Innovation shouldn’t be the goal; creating new products people want and need should be.
And, sure, an argument could be made that innovation is an attitude, but an attitude alone, without resources, is nearly worthless. Innovation must be physically embodied for it to exist. Apple’s stock price and market share didn’t go up because it had some sort of magical power called innovation, but rather because they shipped innovative products. I can’t picture Steve Jobs saying, “We need a breakthrough innovation.” And you shouldn’t say it, or believe it, either.