You can set your watch to it. About every six months an article appears arguing that innovation is an overused term, with corporate fatigue auguring a "back to basics" approach focused on less sexy but important tasks of execution, strategy, and so on.
The latest salvo was a much discussed Wall Street Journal article carrying the provocative title, "You Call That Innovation?" The article had choice lines such as "like the once ubiquitous buzzwords 'synergy' and 'optimization,' innovation is in danger of becoming a cliché — if it isn't one already." (In a related HBR post, Bill Taylor shares his thoughts on the same WSJ article, and why he believes it deserves serious consideration.)
No doubt the term innovation is bankrupt at some companies, particularly those that throw the word around without defining it clearly. The Little Black Book of Innovation offers a simple, five-word definition: "Something different that has impact." This intentionally broad definition helps to disarm three common misconceptions.
The first misconception is that innovation and creativity are the same things. Companies that fall into this trap think that the best way to solve the innovation problem is to bring in a wide range of right-brained thinkers, put them in a room, and ask them think of awesome ideas. There is no doubt that awesome ideas serve as an important input that can lead to impact, but if companies stop at idea-generation, they are destined to suffer disappointing results. As The Little Black Book notes, "Innovation is a process that combines discovering an opportunity, blueprinting an idea to seize that opportunity, and implementing that idea to achieve results. Remember — no impact, no innovation."
The second misconception is that only a select group of people should drive a company's innovation activities. People often think that innovation lives in labs, and it is done by white-lab-coated scientists. But everyone in an organization should think about doing something different that has impact. Not all innovations come in the same flavor, of course. The Wall Street Journal article noted that Innosight founder Clayton Christensen favors three categories of innovation: efficiency (doing the same thing faster or cheaper), sustaining (making current solutions better), disruptive (transforming complicated solutions into simple, accessible, affordable ones). It is also helpful to think about different "levers" for innovation, which can range from new internal processes to integrated business models.
The third misconception is that innovation is all about "big bangs." Companies hold up Apple as an aspirational (albeit impossible to be replicated) standard, and say they need to create multi-billion dollar platforms like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Pushing for big bangs often leads to overly risky ideas that have little hope of getting approved at most companies. Remember, the scoreboard is measured not in the size of the vision, the beauty of the financial forecasts, or the degree of difficulty, but in impact. True big bangs are rare. And, as friend and Innosight fellow Peter Sims notes, the best way to do something big is to start small. At least part of Apple's genius is in being relentless in its innovation approach.
Many see innovation as sexy and mysterious. It can seem to leaders to be a helpful bromide to a struggling organization. Innovation certainly is energizing, and, when managed properly, can have world-changing impact. But innovation is a discipline to be mastered and managed. It is hard work. Getting good at it requires significant practice. Telling an organization that "it's innovation time" without investing time, people, and, yes, some money into follow-up generates cynicism quickly.
I wear my biases on my sleeve, but I believe the innovation movement is still in its early days. While the term is centuries old, academics have only been studying it for about four decades. More systematic work by practitioners over the past two decades has brought increased clarity to what works and what doesn't. I predict that a handful of companies will build a systematic, integrated innovation ecosystem that creates substantial space between them and their competitors. Far from becoming a cliché, innovation will be as important to future leaders as strategy and operational excellence is to current ones.