Innovation. What IS it?

What IS innovation? No, really. What does it mean? We use it all the time – in fact, we use it so much in our daily business language it has quickly come to mean almost nothing. Like “strategic” and “synergy” before it, “innovation” is rapidly approaching the tipping point of turning into a useless anachronism. But, before it does, let’s take just a moment to reflect on an otherwise wonderful word.

Innovation connotes newness, an idea that is different from anything before it. Despite the fact that many car manufacturers would like you to believe that adding a 7th cup holder to their minivan is an innovation, it is not. Why not? That cup holder may be great. It might even help sell more minivans. But, it fails the test as an innovation for a variety of reasons.

Innovation is born through creativity, forged in diverse thought, and formed through critical analysis.

A 7th cup holder, however desirable, does not live up to any of these requirements.

A recent McKinsey survey found that over 70% of business leaders believe that innovation is a top driver for growth. Wow – must be important! But, that same survey found that nearly two-thirds of those same executives felt that their organization was doing a sub-par job of innovating. What gives?

Well, let’s revisit the three steps of innovation provided earlier: creativity, diverse thought, and critical analysis. Before I even go any further, ask yourself, how good is your company at these three things? RIIIIIIGHT…

Creativity is sorely lacking from the traditional workplace. It is not selected for in hiring, and it is often actively discouraged by corporate culture. Diverse thought, or even just diversity as a whole, is another weakness of the traditional workplace. While at least this is more readily acknowledged and there are efforts to reconcile diversity issues, countless diversity reports from countless organizations show that equal representation, especially in leadership and strategic directing capacities, is woefully behind. Last, critical analysis, is yet another weakness of the workplace. This may come as a surprise to many as we can easily point to all the strategic analyses and big data work that happens in so many firms and claim that as critical analysis. And, it is! But, at the same time, the average worker’s ability to simply stand up and say, “I think that this is a terrible idea.” is, again, actively discouraged in the name of knowing one’s place and toeing the company line. In fact, any individual who regularly does so, regardless of how honest their intentions or even how right they may be, is playing a dangerous game with their long-term longevity at almost any firm. This is the corporate mindset at work.

So, if the average workplace more or less sucks at all three of the necessary steps for innovation, where can they even begin? It’s a pretty daunting overhaul, but the shortest and most pain-free path is through understanding strengths. Changing our lens from a deficit orientation to one where we understand and appreciate our own strengths and those of others, provides a foundation for all three steps of innovation.

Through strengths, we are more able to think creatively as we orient towards what we already do best rather than trying to fixing what we do worst. Through strengths, diverse thought naturally bubbles to the top as we all have different strengths and are now empowered to express our thinking through the lens of our individual strengths. And, finally, through strengths, critical analysis can occur as all members of the team, activated through their strengths, can work to hone an idea into a true innovation.

It sounds trite, but it works. It lacks the consultant-speak that so many other “how to innovate” solutions out there provide, but as a founder of multiple startups and a consultant to hundreds more, I can assure you that strengths are the only real way to carve paths to innovation.

So, the next time you hear “innovation” being bandied about, as it takes another step towards meaninglessness, please just remember that it is losing meaning because those who use the word most fail to understand what it really means. More importantly, they fail to understand how individual and cultural strengths provide the critical environment within which innovation must exist to form and to grow.