Five words that kill innovation

I submit for your consideration, five words that I'm beginning to think kill innovation in organizations. Use them at your own peril.


Whenever someone uses this word, it’s invariably in conjunction with “idea” or “plan,” as in: “the design team is implementing the concept” or “our sales and marketing team has begun implementing the new strategic plan.” Implementation (aka execution) distinguishes between the innovation (and hence credit-worthy) phase of coming up with something to do, and the non-credit worthy phase of getting it done. And yet “getting it done” requires more creative problem-solving, more personal and organizational risk, and more time and effort than “having an idea.” This is the credit default swap of organizational innovation: as soon as someone uses this word, they have taken all the credit and left you with all the risk.


Aside from its use as a credit default swap (see Implement), when managers use this word they are grossly over-simplifying a problem and its solution. The biggest clue is when the word is used in absentia, as in “We need more ideas” or “My people can’t think out of the box,” or “We (subtext: you) need to be more innovative (subtext: give me an idea).” Anyone with any sense of their industry, history, and current events should have ideas enough for a lifetime. When someone calls for more and better ideas, they are really calling for utterly, obviously, and indefensibly-brilliant ideas to cut through the spider-webs of complexity and solve their problem at its roots, which are as abundant as unicorns. Most problems are more complicated than that, which is why looking for ideas on the open market is a good way to solve simple problems (the kind with simple answers), but not particularly effective when addressing the problems at your pay-scale.


The first-person singular is perhaps the most dangerous pronoun to use in any conversation around innovation. When leaders use it, it is to claim credit for something. My works just as well: “Under my tenure, shareholder value rose 35%, patents increased 52%, etc…” When co-workers use it, it’s either to take credit or to avoid blame: “I did my job.” Every politician would have you believe that, like Lincoln, they were born in a log cabin they built with their own bare hands. He and She can be just as bad, as they bestow credit on other individuals when many likely took equal risks and made equal contributions. Innovation is a collective effort—it is built together, and on the backs of many others who came before.


It’s not what you think. This word is like oxygen — too little is as toxic as too much. It’s easy to see how too much No kills innovation, but too little does the same. One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Steve Jobs, was that the hardest but most critical decisions he ever made were the ones to which he said “no.” Great leaders, have a clear vision, can articulate it, and can sell it to others. But a vision is not a strategy. So while good visions lay out a clear goal and energize people, the result can look like a 6 & under soccer game where all the players swarm the ball, competing with each other to kick it. And the ball (and the game) goes nowhere. Without No, you lose the discipline of defined roles, focused efforts, and clear objectives required to make innovation happen.


Finally the I-word itself. Most of the damage comes from using the word to describe behavior, ideas, or technologies. Innovation is about outcomes. Edison’s electric light, Ford’s mass production, Bell Lab’s transistor, and Apple’s iPhone were innovative. The other lights, cars, and smart phones that came before were not. So when you use the word (or more updated versions like disruptive) to label ideas, teams, and business models and other pieces of the process, you lose sight of the fact that none of this matters if the outcome doesn’t stick. In other words, people, ideas, and technologies are not inherently innovative or disruptive. That quality comes from the work that follows. When math professor Larry Shepp was once asked to defend the credit he received for a theorem that others had clearly discovered before him, he replied, “Yes, but when I discovered it, it stayed discovered.” Innovation is not about new things, it’s about getting new things done.