What are we talking about when we talk about innovation?

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Every industry has jargon: words people say to sound informed whose true meanings have been diluted from overuse. People who hear others use jargon don’t know what it means either, but generally they nod along for fear that asking for clarification will expose them to ridicule. Jargon's integrality to business has been parodied to hilarious effect on 30 Rock:

In the tech business world, the word ‘innovation’ is a prime example of this. The word has been tossed around to the point where it means nothing, or, perhaps worse, can mean anything. Tech theory personality and former Microsoft engineer Scott Berkun has isolated at least seven ideas people could be talking about when they say ‘innovation’. “Unless you are taking the time to ensure everyone in the room uses these words to mean the same thing,” he continues, “the word fails to convey meaning.”

One definition, which Dubai-based job search giant Bayt.com has used in creating this infographic, is to drive production of new technology and iteration of existing. But limiting the word to this definition, as perhaps the Bayt.com study has done, produces statistics that are surprising. The most interesting part of a statistic like “83% of organizations polled in the Middle East and North Africa have a long-term innovation strategy” is its inverse: The fact that 17% of companies polled admitted that they didn’t have a long-term strategy for making change. 

The deeper problem here may be that innovation is defined too broadly. Conflating 'innovation' with 'building new things' makes it seem though it's impossible for companies who don't build new things to innovate, or that companies without an 'innovation strategy' aren't doing anything new.

Despite how tired of it we all are, there is a place for this word. Berkun limits his short list of innovative inventions to the light bulb, constitutional governments, wireless radio, and the web browser, the latter of which (coincidentally?) he helped pioneer. These, he says, have illustrated “significant positive change,” which is his working definition, even narrower than the one in the dictionary. The oft-heard PR line ‘we innovate every day,’ hence, is nonsensical.

He emphasizes: “Simpler language accelerates progress…. Inflated language slows it down and confuses people on what the goals are. Calling yourself tall doesn’t make you tall. A word is just a word. It’s your actions that matter, not the labels you use.” 

Check out Bayt.com's infographic:

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