The Words We Choose

In a recent HBR article “Stop Calling It Innovation,” Nadya Zhexembayeva suggests ditching the term “innovation.” Her point? Employees hate innovation. Rightly or wrongly, they associate innovation with undue risk, extra work without reward, and even job loss. As a result, Prof. Zhexembayeva argues, they tend to avoid corporate innovation activities at all.

I agree with Prof. Zhexembayeva that employees hate certain things. I, however, doubt that changing the terminology alone will achieve much. Everyone hates being reprimanded by their manager but did replacing “negative feedback” with “constructive” help? Or, for that matter, will replacing “lay-offs” with “workforce reduction” or “downsizing” help alleviate the pain of being terminated?

(As a side note, there is a lot of talks these days that the future developments in Artificial Intelligence may result in a massive loss of jobs – and many employees are apprehensive about it. Isn’t it time to rename AI into something else? “Non-human cognition,” perhaps?)

Prof. Zhexembayeva’s attempt to solve corporate innovation problems with terminological fixes isn’t without precedent. Back in 2016, Stefan Lindegaard, too, called for trashing the term “innovation” and replacing it with “transformation.” (Lindegaard also suggested to get rid of the term “Chief Innovation Officer” in favor of “Chief Digital Officer.”) And later, Scott Kirsner advocated eliminating the term “corporate entrepreneur” because, in Kirsner’s opinion, this term was obstructing, rather than facilitating, corporate innovation.

I’m not against changing terminology in principle. The business environment rapidly evolves, and our mental and verbal constructs must reflect that. The critical issue, though, is whether the new term works better than the incumbent.

And this is, in my opinion, the weakest point in Prof. Zhexembayeva’s terminology upheaval. In fact, she doesn’t propose any real replacement to “innovation” except for mentioning that a couple of her clients used verbal constructs including the words “idea” and “reinvention.”

Does Prof. Zhexembayeva really imply that “idea” and “innovation” are the same thing? True, innovation starts with collecting ideas, which are then assessed, validated, tested, and finally implemented into new products, services, and operational improvements. Ignoring this all-important implementation part of the innovation process, the one that follows the ideation part, simply means a misrepresentation of what innovation really is.

Yes, there is no innovation without ideas. But the reverse isn’t true as evidenced by numerous examples of organizations collecting zillions of poorly defined “ideas” (usually during hackathons and other “idea-generating” exercises) and not knowing what to do with them.

I’d argue, however provocatively that might sound, that the periodic calls to ditch the term “innovation” reflect a sort of intellectual cowardice on the part of the corporate innovation leadership. Our corporate innovation leaders often do a very poor job in defining what innovation means specifically for their organizations. Innovation charters, a formal document outlining the major aspects of the organization’s innovation strategy, are almost unheard of. Attempts to introduce portfolio management of innovation projects are often met with a deadly fire because “structure” supposedly kills innovation. A simple idea that for each innovation objective there must be a specific innovation tool most suited for this objective, sounds almost foreign.

And on top of that, corporate innovation leaders fail to explain to their employees that today, innovation isn’t a luxury, not even a dispensable corporate function. It’s the only way to survive – for their organizations and employees alike.

Why bother? Let’s stop calling it innovation instead.

As I wrote just a few weeks ago, it falls on all of us – academics, business writers, and innovation practitioners – to educate corporate leaders and their employees on the very basics of innovation: definitions, typology, infrastructure, processes, metrics, and incentives. We need to create a set of short narratives (“Innovation101,” so to speak) giving organizations a place to start, in a practical and intuitive way.

No one will do that if we don’t. So, let’s do that and leave the fun of playing with words to creative writers.

Check out my eBook, “We the People of the Crowd…,” a collection of stories about crowdsourcing reflecting my personal experience in working with corporate and nonprofit clients.

 Image provided by Tatiana Ivanov

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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