In 1995, Joseph Bower and Clayton Christensen write an article for the Harvard Business Review. It deals with “disruptive technologies” and is well received, but it doesn’t start a movement. Two years later, having honed his message, Christensen publishes the book The Innovator’s Dilemma, in which the core notion is changed to “disruptive innovation”. The rest, as they say, is history. Innovation, particularly disruptive such, became the biggest game in town.
Today, 20+ years later, terms like “disruption” and “innovation” are neither novel nor rare but rather commonplace and omnipresent. One might even say that they have become something akin to the music of the business conversation, a soothingly recognizable hum that whilst might not carry any deeper meaning, it still makes us feel comfortable in knowing what’s going on around us. By my (conservative) estimates, more than 100 books on innovation are published globally every month, and that’s merely the tip of the metaphoric iceberg because with this comes a tsunami of innovation punditry, delivered over media both old and new, including but not limited to LinkedIn-groups, industry newsletters, cheesy Instagram-posts, and magazine articles. Today we have an entire industry dedicated to peddling innovation clichés, with innovation consultants writing innovation books in order to keynote innovation conferences, for an audience of other innovation consultants.
Today we have an entire industry dedicated to peddling innovation clichés, with innovation consultants writing innovation books in order to keynote innovation conferences, for an audience of other innovation consultants.
If you think this sounds too dreary for words, consider the plight of the modern corporate employee. In all likelihood, such a figure will have encountered innumerable such consultants, not to mention a mass of innovation initiatives and similar wearisome exercises. Today, many of us live in the age of innovation fatigue, an era in which calls for innovation have become so routine and commonplace that they evoke no sentiment beyond a vague sense of déjà vu – and the attendant sense of weariness. Such feelings are at the heart of our contemporary innovation crisis, brought on by the increasing tendency to turn innovation into a boring cliché, a tiring set of buzzwords, a never-ending invocation of something vague and ill-defined.
The problem here is that when innovation is turned into such a performance, such a pirouette of platitudes, it actually does damage to innovation. You would be excused for thinking that talking about innovation would engender more of the same, but in an age where this talk has become ever-present, the opposite may well hold. As people in corporations learn that talk of innovation has less to do with creating the new and more to do with giving consultants a reason to invoice and management a reason to feel good about themselves, it is natural that they start feeling the term means little or nothing. No wonder then, that in survey after survey, 90+% of CEOs complain that their innovation initiatives aren’t creating the returns they’d expected…
It is natural to think that more talk about innovation would mean more actual innovation, just like one expects a loving couple to confirm their love with sweet affirmations. But innovation isn’t love, and organizations aren’t romantic relationships. In an organization, overly enthusiastic calls for innovation may well be the thing that kills that which it professes to love. What today’s endless exhortations for innovation increasingly creates is fatigue, for it is connected neither to actual innovation nor to what people wish innovation to be.
This is why I tell executives that sometimes the path to more innovation is to talk less about innovation; there is no one around any longer who hasn’t heard the clichéd calls for more of it, so we need to change the discourse. We need to think of ways to talk about innovation that creates enthusiasm rather than fatigue, but to do so we need to be able to challenge the current discussion. We need to, in a manner of speaking, ignore disruptive innovation and rather think about ways to disrupt our contemporary innovation discussion.