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8/16/2013
09:47 AM
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Innovation Is Executive Porn

When it comes to both innovation and porn, there's a huge appetite for fantasy.

When executives take off their glasses and pinch their eyes shut in that "I'm thoughtful" pose, they're picturing themselves in a black turtleneck.

For that brief moment, they're on stage at the unveiling of their next masterpiece. They glance backstage and see their approving mothers. They get an animated thumbs up from the supportive management consultant that did their hair. If they squint past the spotlights, they can see -- in the back of the stadium, in the nosebleed seats -- every person who ever rejected them, who made them feel alone and lonely, who didn't recognize them for the star they obviously are.

And just like that -- whoosh -- they open their eyes and they're executives again, listening to some awful presentation about god only knows what.

Innovation Is Obscenity

Like its fat cousin "leadership" (quotes intentional), the term innovation is so broadly defined that it has lost all meaning. Every leader is now an innovator and every new product -- and every new feature of that product -- deserves a ribbon. Yay! Ribbons for everyone!

Fun exercise No. 1: Check out this Google Trends chart comparing the words leadership and innovation. Spooky how the two rise and fall in lockstep, no? Compare that to the chart for the words leader and innovator. My completely unscientific takeaway is that for every 1,000 leaders in the world, there is 1 innovator. And that's generous.

Fun exercise No. 2: Add the term "innovative design" to your Google News feed. The PR wire becomes so very entertaining with your first daily sip of hot beverage. Mornings in my house are now filled with sarcasm, yes, but also -- at least once each day -- with the well-deserved start of a slow clap. "The LG G2 has an innovative rear button design?!? Bravo, LG. Bravo.

Clap.

Here's the thing about innovation: I'm not sure any of us needs a definition. We don't need a journalist to tell us what it is. Or who really gets it.

Innovation is like obscenity: We know it when we see it. It's hard to miss when paradigms shift.

So no one is fooling anyone with all the press releases and internal memos. All we're doing is sending another cool word to the literary junk pile. The one I regret the most: the cloud. Poetry lost something the day some marketer stole that word.

And that, by the way, is why as a writer I never use my favorite words: I don't want to risk something that I write accidentally going viral and then overhearing my HR partner use the word "sublime" in a hushed tone. "I think it means 'half a lime.'"

Innovation Promotes Short-Term Gratification

Given my role in Big, I meet with aspiring entrepreneurs pretty regularly. Very often they bring their loaves of sliced bread, their technology prototypes. And many times, as they pitch their "greatest thing since," they forget that the loaf itself isn't the innovation; the manufacture of it is.

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Having the idea of sliced bread isn't compelling. Anyone can showcase one loaf. All you need is a knife.

Technology prototypes must demonstrate scale and stability, adaptability and adoptability -- scars that come only from the long, hard road to commercialization.

As I sit with those entrepreneurs, I can't help but think about why Big struggles with innovation. Where's the disconnect?

At first, I thought that what's missing in the corporate environment is the role played by venture capitalists. The one that says "I have an appetite for risk."

But then I remember that Big loves risk. We learn exactly how much each time a bubble bursts.

What Big lacks isn't appetite; it's character. And values. Specifically, patience. Big isn't engineered to wait for slow cooked food, and the creative process takes time. The path to commercialization takes even longer.

Big's timeframes are driven by quarterly reports and analysts' expectations, by unreasonably short windows to prove value as a management team and annual bonus cycles. That reality skews Big's expectations around innovation.

And that is why the innovation industrial complex produces fast food -- innovation in a can, with loads of salt, sugar and fat.

Speaking of which ...

Innovation Supports A Filthy Industry

I'm looking at you, hbr.org! No one has called you out for a while, or if they have it was in that syrupy academic tone that first validates your intellect.

I despise you. You're scientists in the same way that chiropractors are doctors. Your case studies are the new statistics (as in "lies, damn lies and...").

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RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
8/19/2013 | 2:36:51 PM
re: Innovation Is Executive Porn
Clap. (In its sincerest form.)
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
8/19/2013 | 2:50:42 PM
re: Innovation Is Executive Porn
You and Edison agree there's a lot of hard work to be done at work. That makes me think of the entrepreneur Tom Sawyer, who to recruit kids to help him paint a fence convinced them that fence painting was great fun. Thinking of our work as innovation might help us consider hard work as a bit more fun.
OtherJimDonahue
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OtherJimDonahue,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/19/2013 | 3:00:16 PM
re: Innovation Is Executive Porn
I'm going to take a crazy, wild guess that you're not a fan of the "Chief Innovation Officer" title then. (I'm about as fond of that as "Chief Technology Evangelist.")
Coverlet
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Coverlet,
User Rank: Strategist
8/19/2013 | 3:53:38 PM
re: Innovation Is Executive Porn
Too many chiefs. Not enough rangers.

Jim- If you haven't read it, try SC Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon. Better use of time than business books.
OtherJimDonahue
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OtherJimDonahue,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/19/2013 | 4:36:03 PM
re: Innovation Is Executive Porn
That looks fascinating--thanks!

Jim
Number 6
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Number 6,
User Rank: Strategist
8/19/2013 | 6:43:40 PM
re: Innovation Is Executive Porn
Excellent points about sliced bread and HBR. Few leading lights in academia actually spent significant time in a real workplace. Want to see a dysfunctional, siloed environment that gets blindsided by real innovation? Take a look at any college department.
Somedude8
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Somedude8,
User Rank: Ninja
8/19/2013 | 7:21:20 PM
re: Innovation Is Executive Porn
I sure need my boss to read this!
Scratch that, I sure need my boss to *understand* this.
NG11209
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NG11209,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/19/2013 | 8:40:10 PM
re: Innovation Is Executive Porn
Take that, Harvard Business Review! Also, good points. The thing is, people try to copy innovators by identifying what they think the innovative company has that they lack. Too often, they miss, so they try to add more execs to the fire. Then you end up with, as you state, a bloated, impatient structure that stifles innovation.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
8/20/2013 | 1:26:45 PM
re: Innovation Is Executive Porn
I'm currently judging a boatload of submissions to a certain awards program that holds forth innovation as one of its criteria. It amazes me what people try to pass off as creative, original and inspired. I used to think the ratio of crap to the real deal was 10 to 1, but I'm beginning to think Coverlet's 1,000 to ratio is closer to the mark.
Tom Mariner
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Tom Mariner,
User Rank: Strategist
8/21/2013 | 5:46:20 PM
re: Innovation Is Executive Porn
Pay attention class -- "Cloverlet" has just dropped a biggie, "they forget that the loaf itself isn't the innovation; the manufacture of it is." Our very Intellectual Property laws protect an idea, not the production of the idea into something useful. As the author points out, our fantasies are of this lone geek with a light bulb above his head as the pinnacle, when it is actually the plan to get to the base camp.

Commercialization is where that geek faces the realities that will create a million happy customers. I've had cartoons of me and the light bulb flashed on screens, and my thought is always the same, "Call me when we have shipped a half million". Actually now I help make that happen and the one beef I have with the otherwise sage article is the belief that it takes just as long to get a mediocre product revision out the door as it does to do an iPad, or iPod or iPhone. It just takes a much bigger "set", the ability to give "agile" a whole new meaning, and the phrase "That's not good enough". But the thrill of "inventing tomorrow" is a pretty big high.

Love the pseudonym -- jealous I didn't think of it or even the fact one needed one.
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