What Do Colleagues Hear When You Say ‘Innovation’?

By Aaron Proietti |  February 24, 2018

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.

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.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?

In creating this resource on Innovation Interpretations, I considered what each of the functional groups in a typical organization might be thinking when the CEO announces that the company will be more innovative. While intended to be light-hearted, this resource can help companies ensure that every group has a definition of innovation which is relatable, and accessible, to them. It may be useful to you in understanding how various functions may operate in varying degrees of ambiguity. For instance, if the CEO doesn’t communicate that innovation requires a different pace of execution than the company is used to, then gatekeepers such as Legal, Compliance, or Risk functions won’t necessarily help overcome any barriers. Similarly, if the CEO doesn’t state who is responsible for what type of innovation, then groups such as Marketing or IT may vie for credit, and ultimately, compete for scarce resources.

While this resource won’t precisely spell out how you should define innovation in your particular situation—that will be different for every organization—it highlights the risks of doing so poorly, and the potential rewards that a precise, well-rounded definition can produce.

Download the resource in Excel form here, and check out other resources in this series in our Resource Center. An excerpt from this resource is below, spelling out the “Worst Case,” “Common Case,” and “Best Case” when it comes to the CEO spelling out what she expects from an innovation effort.

Worst Case Common Case Best Case
CEO uses ‘innovation’ as a buzzword, such as ‘we are going to be more innovative,’ but further definition is left open to interpretation. CEO declares innovation as a priority, some resources are set aside, but objectives, risk tolerance, trade-offs, etc. lack clear definition. CEO is involved in crafting an innovation strategy which includes clear definition around who is innovating; what the metrics and incentives are; and what the company hopes to achieve, how, and by when.

Aaron Proietti is a Contributing Writer and Former Innovation SVP and Chief Customer Advocate, Transamerica