New Resource: What Do Colleagues Hear When You Say ‘Innovation’?

When the CEO asked me to lead innovation efforts at my company in 2012, I had the opportunity to travel to each of our locations and talk to the employees about our innovation program. While on stage, I remember asking the audience, “What is innovation?” Hands would shoot up and people would explain what innovation meant to them. “It’s creativity!” someone would shout. “Building something new,” someone else would say. “Inventing new products,” “Taking risks,” or “Incremental improvement,” might be offered up as well.

What was consistent was that innovation was inconsistently understood. Innovation could be all of those things, or it could just be one or two. What this ambiguity allowed, for me as a leader, was some flexibility in creating a definition of innovation that worked for our company at that time. The risk, of course, was that the ambiguity was never resolved, and the innovation efforts would either spin in their tracks or grind to a halt, and never progress beyond a dream. After all, if everyone thinks innovation means something different, can it really happen?

It’s an unfortunate reality that the problem of describing what kind of innovation you want to pursue is all-too-common. In it’s worst cases, a poor definition of innovation can lead to resentment toward all innovation efforts, which manifests itself as resistance. A more common case that I see is when CEOs offer up a “lite” definition, which talks about the new goals, new resources, and the new priority of innovation across the enterprise, but doesn’t address trade-offs, timeframes, new organizational models, and so on. In rare cases, CEOs and executive boards actually take the time to define the word completely—resolving the who, where, when, and how of the innovation efforts—which clarifies expectations across the company.

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