There are a few words used in today’s work-world that just make me cringe. Five years ago, the default combination of effective and efficient began to really bother me. Our quest for efficiency continues to undermine our effectiveness, as many don’t understand that more often than not, an or is what separates that word tandem. Today, and for quite some time, the overuse of the word innovate and its many derivatives have come to mean nothing (and one of the quickest ways to have me tune out in a conversation). It’s a result of not only hearing it so often, but also because most people don’t seem to know what it means.

Innovate: To do something in a new way: to have new ideas about how something can be done

We hear it all of the time…

  • We must innovate!
  • Innovation is critical to our success
  • Thank you for developing such an innovative solution

I do my best to not use the word. Instead, I prefer to simplify the conversation by saying what I truly mean instead of leaving the misinterpretation up to others. I have found that when people use “The I word“, they usually mean it in one of two ways.

  1. “The Bold” mean it to inspire not new ways of doing something, but new somethings to deliver. In essence, they mean to communicate invention and not innovation.
  2. “The Confused” don’t really know what they mean, but those of us listening understand that their focus is incremental improvement.

I wish that both would say what they truly mean. One group oversells the word (or undersells their intent) and one is merely playing buzzword bingo. The word innovation aside, the truth is there is great value in both invention and incremental improvement. We can all point to countless inventions that have changed our world. I am typing on one, just as you are reading this as a result of many. To invent is to create something that did not previously exist; to innovate is to enhance or build upon another’s creation (e.g., incremental improvement).

I have been working with some very creative thinkers with whom I share a vision for how things could be. We are eager to invent what others are not ready to embrace and the size of our increments are much larger than many are willing to accept. Rather than scare them by unveiling our ultimate creations, we have come to embrace the notion that a series of small changes to which others can say “Yes” over time will ultimately lead us to the inventions we have in our queue. You see, when The Confused say they want innovation, they mean they want incremental improvement (which is what innovation truly is, so they may not be all that confused after all). The Bold want invention. Some might say that The Confused slow us down, while others might say that by slowing down the pace, they increase the chances that our inventions might both be realized and stick.

With it being the holiday season and having recently watched my fair share of holiday specials, I can’t help but see visions of my favorite scene in the stop-motion animated movie, Santa Claus is Coming to Town. It is the song Put One Foot in Front of the Other, for it tells the story of how incremental change is realized. I am not saying that anyone is good or bad, just that we all have our own level of comfort when it comes to the rate of change. Some of us are ready to teleport, others are ready to sprint, and still, others are content with walking (yes, there are those content with standing still, but they aren’t reading this anyway). Whether we are inventing, innovating, or incrementally improving, the important thing is that we move and we move together. We must allow the inventors to pull us along and the innovators to incrementally improve. We must be content with the notion that incremental yesses in a bureaucratic organization is a path to invention and making our ideas stick. Patience may not be our strong point, but our persistence must overshadow our impatience.

  • What does the word innovate mean to you?
  • What incremental yesses are you helping your seniors get to?
  • Which trait is more virtuous: patience or persistence?

The path to invention is paved with incremental yesses; give someone a reason to say “yes” today (and each day)…