The Company That Cried “Innovation” and a Ridiculous Case Study That Has To Do With Cats

People ask me to create messaging to drive others to engage with them. When I ask them how they would like to be perceived, the number one word I hear is (you guessed it) — Innovative.

Innovate, Innovation, Innovating… any variation you like. But heed my warning — the word is in danger of losing its weight. While “innovation” is a potent concept, it’s a word that must be used responsibly. Let’s talk about its meaning and why you shouldn’t feel pressured to use it all the time.

INNOVATION – what does it mean, really?

Here’s a basic definition to get us started:
Innovate — in·no·vate — ˈinəˌvāt/
To make [positive] changes in something established by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.

I would add that Innovation should have measurable results. The change you claim to have made should be visible, tangible, repeatable. Say you run a mugs for cat lovers business. Usually you have meetings in a conference room, but today you’ve decided to “innovate” by having a meeting on a rooftop deck with pour-over coffee and the “Hipster Afternoon” playlist over the speakers. That alone does not make you innovative. Now. Did you introduce this new meeting method to solve a problem of your employees not being creative enough, which meant you were not selling enough cat-lover mugs? And now after the introduction of this new meeting method, your employees are noticeably more creative and your sales of cat-lover mugs has skyrocketed 200%? Great! But you still do not get to use the word “innovative” in your materials. WHAT? I know. My standards are high. Oh wait, are you telling me that during one of these afternoon caffeine-fueled meetings, you introduced a radical new idea for the mug in which cat owners can hear a recording of their cat’s meow every time they tip the mug as they drink, because you asked cat lovers what they really wanted in a cat-lovers mug, and they told you they missed their cats every time they lifted their head to take a sip, and Cat Lovers Magazine declared this “Product of the Year,” and now cat lovers everywhere can enjoy the sound of those precious purrs any time, and you have carved your spot in a highly competitive market, and now you are going to expand your audio-enhanced mug offerings to include mugs for dog lovers, mugs for car lovers (vroom!), and mugs for people who love Shakira? And you’ve changed the way people drink for the rest of time?

Congratulations, you have innovated.

The example is obviously ridiculous, but the point still stands: If you did not make a positive change in something established by introducing – in this case – a new product, you probably made adjustments in your method, or ideas, or products in reaction to lower-than-desirable performance.

And you know what?  That’s OK. It’s your job to adapt, to be flexible, even to transform. But to use the word “innovate” is to invoke something pretty big – and you might want to save it for when you need it.

There’s something to be said for a company that is solid, steadfast, dependable, and that does its job well. Allowing your company to be grounded when it is doing its job well may allow for stability and growth. Sometimes, the pressure to constantly innovate results in Heads-In-The-Cloud syndrome, a vastly under-diagnosed ailment that can lead to weaknesses in the main functions of your organization. You should always be looking for ways to be relevant, alert, attractive to new customers, and flexible. But sit down and grab a beer, you don’t have to change the course of the universe all the time.

“I’ve innovated!  I really have!”

Great!  Now let’s find a way to show it, instead of telling it.  Ask yourself what you really did to innovate. Did you:

  • Solve a problem
  • Design & implement a product/method/idea
  • Experiment
  • Learn a lesson

Your innovation is probably a combination of these. None of these are boring and stagnant. What they are is real. They are grounded. And we can use words like these to show potential customers what differentiates you in the market. A lot of companies want to use the word “innovate” because they think it’s sexy or bold. They think it sets them apart. But if everyone is using it all the time, how can it?

Let’s work together to find the right words to capture what you’re all about and the value you provide. And seriously, if you have any idea how to make a mug like the one I’ve described above, we need to talk.

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