Innovation isn't invention

When you hear the word “innovation,” what comes to mind? I always imagined a company like IBM or Google releasing something that sounds like science fiction. We never see it coming.

Maybe you picture some kind of crazy new CPG product, or a smartly explained philosophy for transforming the management of teams. Whatever the case, we typically believe that innovation is about creating something from nothing.

But we’re never able to truly start from nothing. Whether we launch a brand new project or even a brand new business, we’re still putting it out into a reality fraught with preconceived notions and preexisting conditions. There’s always a status quo. So to understand our mandate when we want to “innovate,” we first need to embrace that we don’t ever have a blank slate — not really.

And given that we’re always grappling with the status quo (which provides some additional context to what we create), and given that our jobs are to innovate on top of that status quo, we have to stop screaming “INNOVATE” across our organizations like anyone is ever able to do anything that radical. Unless you are quite literally a deity, that’s impossible. (Even then, you exist as a deity prior to creating something from nothing. Or do you? Do deities “exist” per se? is there a God at all? Hold on, I need to go walk outside for an hour…)

So let’s acknowledge these things. We can’t create from zero. We have to understand the status quo. When we sell in our new ideas, we have to discuss them in relation to what already exists — in their minds, so we can persuade them to adopt our story, or in the world more broadly, so we can effectively innovate in reality, not just in theory.

Thus, in reality, I don’t think my image of giant tech corporations inventing something out of nowhere is an accurate portrayal of innovation. Innovation is not so radical, not so far-ranging, and certainly not so out-of-the-blue, especially to those doing the work.

No, when we acknowledge that there’s always a status quo, we realize that innovation isn’t invention at all.

Innovation is RE-invention.

When we embrace that notion, we see more possibilities for different and better work. We don’t need to pull giant stunts. We can create small wrinkles on the status quo — refreshing changes delivering something welcome into the world that others didn’t expect.

If the goal was actually to create something from nothing, we’d hole up in a conference room and debate and pontificate, or else get stuck thinking about the sheer magnitude of the job. But the goal isn’t to do anything of the sort. The goal is to introduce refreshing changes to the status quo. This requires investigation, not pontification.

Innovation doesn’t require invention. It requires reinvention.

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Posted on September 19, 2019 .