Everyone loves to talk about innovation: how they do it better, why everyone else has it wrong, what the word really means. There’s so much chatter around innovation today, especially among business leaders, that the word has almost lost all meaning.
Why is this happening? Every great accomplishment in history came out of some new innovation, so the concept is hardly overrated. The problem is not with innovation itself, but with the way we talk about it.
Generic advice columns about “boosting” innovation or “fostering an environment” that encourages innovation are all over the web, but their well-meaning authors fail to realize that innovation is not an innate quality of the gifted. It is an industry-specific, situation-specific skill, built by experience and maintained by consistent, ground-level evaluation and action.
This is why so many of these articles fail to land with any audience: If you aren’t industry-specific and industry-relevant, you aren’t relevant at all.
Where the Conversation Goes Astray
When business leaders try to inspire others to be creative, they usually like to start off with a story. Often, these stories detail how hard they and their teams were struggling before they finally had that “a-ha!” moment that made everything click into place. “It was so simple, so obvious — how did we not see it was under our noses the whole time!”
The mistake most people make is assuming that these stories are advice to be followed. Sometimes, funny stories about a successful innovation are just that: funny stories. Innovation as entertainment has become a trope in the startup world, but when I read about innovation and see these stories, I rarely come away with an insight that gives me actual, actionable advice on how to move my business forward.
Abstract points and pseudo-wise anecdotes seem poignant on the surface but quickly lose merit when faced with questions such as, “How can I use this information to help my company?” When the time comes to take action, all the platitudes start to feel hollow.
Avoiding the Echo Chamber
This issue perpetuates itself across blogs, websites, and meeting rooms because we allow it to. We take each other’s musings on innovation and pronounce our agreement of them, passing along the same five or six generic points — ones that sound important but are so watered down from anything actionable, they’re not much more than noise.
The conversation surrounding innovation must turn toward something more practical. The topic has gone beyond high-level strategy to something that we can barely see when we look up, and it’s not helping any of us succeed. Actual innovative tactics and strategies require a dialogue that takes place a little closer to the ground.
The Devil (and the Value) Is in the Details
We’re not having the conversations we need to have because everyone wants to pander to a wider audience to get more clicks. Someone who has experience in innovating within the space of packaged consumer goods might have great things to say about that niche. But instead of speaking to that audience, he or she will water down these thoughts — removing all their inherent value — to have them read by more people.
It feels good to talk about frameworks and concepts, and the articles sound pretty, but abstract ideas need to boil down at some point — and that’s what today’s conversations about innovation lack.
Don’t feed the echo chamber, and don’t mistake anecdotes for advice. If you have a thought about how others in your industry can create new innovations, share it — but be as specific as you can. If we can move the conversation away from high-level thoughts and start sharing advice that people can actually use, we might soon hear a conversation about innovation that’s worth listening to.
Henrik Werdelin is the founding partner of Prehype, a venture development firm headquartered in New York with offices in Detroit, Copenhagen, London, and Rio. Prehype co-creates new ventures and incubation programs with VCs and corporations and launches successful venture-backed startups, such as BarkBox, AND CO, and Managed by Q. Connect with Prehype on Twitter.