Is Innovation Just a Washed-Up Trend?

Back in 2004, Business Week magazine (not yet “Bloomberg”) released their special 75th anniversary issue. In 100-point type, the cover proclaimed “THE INNOVATION ECONOMY” as the theme of the special issue. Right away, I thought, “When a business trend makes the cover of Business Week, that usually means it’s already peaked.”

Wow, was I wrong. Innovation has increased in importance every year since 2004. Business Week eventually added a special once-a-month centerpiece insert “Innovation and Design” (edited by legendary design guru Bruce Nussbaum). But now, in 2012, has the trend finally peaked?

Evidence: The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday May 23, 2012) argues that the term “innovation” is now so widely used, it doesn’t really mean anything anymore–other than a very general notion of “change.” Longtime WSJ reporter Leslie Kwoh says “Businesses throw around the term to show they’re on the cutting edge….But that doesn’t mean the companies are actually doing any innovating.” And then she gives the biggest insult you can give to a trendy business term, in my opinion: she compares the word “innovation” to the washed-up buzzword “synergy.” Ouch, that hurts!

In another section of the same paper, on the same day, is a story titled “Tinkerers Unite! How Parents Enable Kids’ Creativity.” This heartwarming story makes me believe there is a future for America, as I read about parents who create workshops for their children and let them disassemble old TVs and old alarm clocks, and give them soldering guns and hot glue and set them loose. As a child, I remember spending hours out in the garage, using my Dad’s table saw and making games that I’d invented, including making the boxes to store them in. Now that I have a 9-year-old son, would I let him anywhere near a table saw? No way! I can’t believe my parents let me use it (and they weren’t out there watching me, either). Maybe I need to rethink this. After all, I managed to retain all of my fingers! Maybe our concern with safety is keeping our children away from the chance to build, to make, to experiment.

These two articles present an interesting contradiction. Innovation is passe, and yet hands-on creativity and tinkering are going to lead to the next great invention. As usual, I think everyone is right (I love everything I’ve read by Leslie Kwoh, by the way). But whether or not businesses talk the talk without walking the walk, the reality is that if you don’t walk the walk, your business is going to suffer. If you’re in a non-innovative organization, it seems as if it’s impossible to do all of those crazy things that the innovative companies do. It seems impossible, until you actually do them. And then, you can’t imagine what it was like the old way, and why it took you so long to change. If it sounds like a personal and spiritual transformation, maybe it is–if an organization can be said to have such a transformation.

I hope my son continues his tinkering (so far safe, with LEGOs and other indoor toys) and his game invention. I need to think of better ways to foster this. Maybe my wife and I should create a workshop space for him. What have you tried with your children?