Musings on designing experiences & (re)engineering complexity

Sep 2021

Token Innovation

Digital transformation
Minimalist \

There are many terms and fads which make their way through enterprise conversations. And for the most part, it’s very hard to ignore. Mostly because knowledge of those terms is what allows conversations for productivity or profitability to be anchored. If you will, it’s not so much that these terms have value, but the terms are signal to what somebody else (might) values and how they may or may not decide to engage in a business relationship.

Unfortunately, these terms, and the resulting transaction, often point to a less-sustainable (disruptive) change — innovation. That term innovation is filled with so much context. For some organizations it means transformative. For some organizations it means business as usual, just with a different set of clothes. For some organizations it might even mean shifting cultures, without shifting responsibilities. Innovation is one of the points of value in conversation where posture is affirmed — whether one does or does not engage in a business relationship.

Which is why it is probably not the best self-described term to use. In some recent conversations, teams and companies who are talking about being innovative end up reducing the posture to “how do we stay the same but have the appearance of transformed?“ Or, how do you take advantage of the new thing, without moving so far off the Lilly pad of the thing that has gotten you to where you are? Innovation, in this context is merely a token. Merely a signal that someone should want to engage them because they do speak the language of the age, even if they do not practice the behavior of the next one.

Now, it is not true that every business relationship needs to pass these tokens between one another. Innovation, for all of the crud that is packed into its context, can truly be a good thing. An organization who is looking to transform the culture of their industry might engage in truly innovative practices. They may actually engage in truly disruptive, sustainable, and accessible methods that look nothing like the current business campus. And this is where innovation should live. It should not be possible for everyone to attain this. As a matter of fact, this token (innovation) should actually be so valuable because so few people can even utter what it means to exist in such a context.

So then, should an organization or a team or an individual describe themselves as innovative? Probably not. Maybe, similar to the characteristic “humility,” this is a characteristic that is best described by a third-party perspective or point of view. Innovative should be the thing that’s recognized by those persons who are outside of the affected space. Calling attention to those persons who should be aware that disruption, sustainability, etc. is happening; but also giving value, giving weight to the fact that it’s not something so easily carried by everyone who wants to be in the conversation. Innovation carried well is really gold, and all persons should be able to recognize it versus pyrite.

However, we do find innovation passed around as if it were pennies found on the ground at a café. Sure, we can talk about this thing that shines in the sunlight, present at a place were similar transactions occur. But it’s not really disruptive except for being out of place. And when it’s even handed, or put into a position where it has more visibility, it’s nothing more than a token of something greater that’s happening in that space. Somethings stable, something disruptive, something that deserves more value ascribed to it than simply posturing “I’m innovative.“