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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...").

You're ingratiating peddlers, selling the business fantasy that innovation is a repeatable discipline. You are to business insight what American Apparel is to advertising. If your books were pictures, the only thing missing would be the creepy wood paneling in the background.

Your output is intellectual pulp. To demonstrate, here's fun exercise No. 3: how to identify substance in business books. The next time you read something about innovation or leadership, replace each instance of the buzzword with "excellence" (or "being excellent"). If you're Gen Y, this exercise also works with "awesomeness" and "being awesome." If, after the switch, the book still makes sense, burn it.

For instance, Peter Drucker speaking to today's youth: "Being awesome is about lifting a person's vision to high sights, the raising of a person's performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations."

My favorites are the ones where you can't tell if the cult leader is talking about leadership or innovation. Anthony Robbins, who I nominate to join the illustrious authors of hbr.org: "Awesomeness is really a daily habit, whereby you constantly reassess what your customers need now, and what they will need in a few years."

Even people we all admire. Vince Lombardi: "Being awesome rests not only upon ability, not only upon capacity; having the capacity to be awesome is not enough. An awesome person must be willing to use it. His awesomeness is then based on truth and character."

Sniff. Brings a tear to my eye.

My favorite quote of late is Karl Ronn's "Companies that think they have an innovation problem, don't have an innovation problem. They have a leadership problem." It's a winning formula. Key word: formula.

Fun exercise No. 4: Fill in this template with any problem you can imagine: "Companies that think they have a _______ problem, don't have a ______ problem. They have a leadership problem." It's almost religious in its truth. Even self-referential, Inception-inspired versions make sense: "Companies that think they have a leadership problem, don't have a leadership problem. They have a leadership problem."

Clap.

Look, we all need a path to retirement. Something that doesn't involve cat food. Selling innovation to senior management is like marketing cigarettes to kids.

Stop it.

Yet Another Fake Addiction

There are too many parallels between innovation and porn for me (or you) to waste any more time on this subject: Both mismanage expectations, objectify the important half of a partnership, confuse the meaningless with the meaningful. What's important is that both have the kind of apocryphal allure that inspires addiction.

Anyone who suggests that innovation can be a repeatable discipline is either selling consulting services or writing a book (so they can sell consulting services). If you're one of those folks, don't worry. Your motivational speaking gigs are safe, for the same reason that porn actors are all "stars": There will always be a huge appetite for fantasy.

For the rest of us, let's recognize that an unhealthy focus on innovation diminishes the value of everyday business activity. There's nothing that I could write here that wasn't better expressed by Thomas Edison: "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."

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