As evidenced in Part One of this series, along with being cynical, I also tend to be an incorrigible skeptic. In considering innovation, that skepticism led me to think another wonderful word had bitten the generational dust: imagination.
Well, yeah,” I hear you thinking. “But the arbitrary substitution of terminology happens all the time. It’s the way of a world committed to creating the illusion of thoughtful, creative intelligence as a cover for perpetuating its unflagging commitment to habitual, willful ignorance. Get over it.”
True. But we seldom recognize what we lost in that arbitrary substitution of terminology, how we lost it, and the blithe ease with which we let it go. And we needn’t go beyond a question like the one below to find all the evidence necessary to realize the extent of the loss, how painful it is, and how unnecessary it is:
What is your organization’s philosophy about innovation?
I actually saw that question written somewhere, the source of which I can’t reveal for fear I’ll look terrible in an orange jumpsuit. I took the question to be a manifestation of the complex question fallacy because, I thought, in the hope we’d question nothing, it presumed, among other things:
- Innovation is a philosophy. Is it? I assumed innovation had become a substitute and surrogate for imagination. Imagination was a trait, a characteristic, a capacity for wonder and creativity. But we no longer possess or value imagination. So, we contrived innovation, made it a buzzword unto philosophy, and tolerated the cottage industry that sprang up around touting and pontificating about it.
- An organization has to have a philosophy about innovation. Does it? It made me wonder: What if an organization were to value, seek out, recognize, hire, encourage, and reward people with imagination? That might constitute a recruitment philosophy. But it would have nothing to do with innovation. It might even connote the imaginative people hired could be considered — hailed and exalted — as philosophers. But it still wouldn’t have anything do to do with innovation.
- An organization is lacking if it doesn’t have a philosophy about innovation. Is it? If an organization thinks it needs a philosophy about innovation, it’s lacking all right. It’s lacking discernment, critical thinking (particularly about language), resourcefulness, creativity, and imagination. It’s definitely lacking imagination.
And, I thought, given the rate at which we continue to drain meaning and substance from previously serviceable language, even as we generate more fake fog than a Kiss concert, we may as well revert to systems of glyphs, grunts, or guttural growls. Since we’re already not saying anything, at least we’ll save time:
Delbert: Hey, Will. What do you do?
Delbert: Yeah. That’s what everybody else does.
I was wrong.
Hold on Thar, Baba Louie!
The fact that we seem to be siphoning substance and meaning from innovate doesn’t mean companies can’t innovate. It doesn’t mean they’re not imaginative. It just means innovation requires applying imagination with purpose and intention — vision, strategy, structure, discipline, metrics, and consistency. And with purpose and intention — within a framework that ensures vision, strategy, structure, discipline, metrics, and consistency, innovation, like everything else, will look different once it’s transformed from an end to a means.
I used to think there would someday be a research group convened comprising linguists and anthropologists. The group would be commissioned to determine the point in history at which innovation became the most popular and the least meaningful word in the language. Simultaneously, a corollary group would be convened comprising psychologists and philosophers. That group would set itself the task of identifying the genesis of our ceaseless gullibility and the reasons for which we adopt nugatory gibberish like innovation as gratuitous ideology, en masse.
The results of that research wouldn’t be taught in business schools. They’re selling buzzwords and betting the ranch on gullibility just like would-be innovators. The results wouldn’t be published in Harvard Business Review, either, for exactly the same reason. And the results most certainly wouldn’t be read in or espoused by corporate bureaucracies or the consultants who feed on them because … well … you know.
I was wrong about that, too.
All of that notwithstanding, here’s the only thing you really need to know: One person with a vision, with purpose and intention, with a concrete plan and unshakeable resolve, and a disciplined framework in which to bring that plan to fruition is worth more than an infinite number of self-appointed arbitrary terminology substitutors who try to pass themselves off as innovators.
Delbert: Hey, Will. What do you do?
Will: We help customers consistently develop new products, services, and business models.
Delbert: Uh oh. I think I understood you.
Now that’s innovative.
Are you coachable?