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Has innovation “jumped the shark”?

August 16, 2013

By Lisa Parker

I love the topic of innovation. As a management consultant for the past 20 years, I have made a living helping companies innovate and much of my career has focused on helping companies grow through the principles of creative problem solving and strategy.

Twenty years ago, most people didn’t know what innovation was all about. Those of us fortunate enough to be helping others be more innovative were seen as wise sages, bravely guiding the less informed on a journey of self-discovery. In the 1990s, innovation was usually focused on new product or service development and often simply resulted in a value-added solution for current customers.

Then, in the early 2000s, Apple products with their sleek and elegant design and hip advertising, caught the imagination of mainstream America. Cool design and being “innovative” was in! The term “innovation” went viral. “Innovation” was in every annual report, on every leadership agenda, on the cover of all the leading business magazines, and the focus of several new industry conferences. “Innovation” was spreading like wildfire in all directions and across all functions because everyone was trying to be more like Apple.

And, as the term “innovation” became a buzzword, confusion and misunderstandings about “innovation” in company boardrooms rose exponentially. Even Clayton Christensen’s idea of disruptive innovation—a truly novel concept in the 1990s—was being used incorrectly. Meanwhile, the confusion has only increased and since there’s been so much focus and noise around the term these past few years, I’m beginning to wonder if the term “innovation” has actually “jumped the shark.”

“Jumping the shark” is an expression used to describe the moment in the evolution of a television show when it begins a decline in quality that’s beyond recovery. There’s usually a particular scene, episode, or aspect of a show where the writers use some type of gimmick in a desperate attempt to keep viewers’ interest. The idea of “jumping the shark” has subsequently broadened beyond television, indicating the moment when a brand, design, or creative effort’s evolution loses the essential qualities that initially defined its success and then declines, ultimately, into irrelevance.

So, has “innovation” actually “jumped the shark”? The term may have, but the reality is, innovation has never been more vital. It can be a process and it can be a culture. It can be a solution and it can be a philosophy. And when innovation is on your leadership agenda, it can take on very different meanings depending on the audience you are speaking to. So when you are talking about innovation, it’s critical to be absolutely clear about what it is, why it’s important, and to listen to how others view its role within your company.

Product innovation, business model innovation, process innovation, management system innovation, and service innovation are all examples of innovation which require different strategies and resources. Zipcar, an American membership-based car-sharing company, focused on business model innovation as their differentiator. They provide an easy reservation service to their members, billable by the hour or day.

Nintendo used product innovation as their differentiator by integrating an innovative controller technology into a prevalent gaming platform and changed the way we enjoy console games at home.

On the other hand, online shoe sales giant Zappos focused its innovation strategy on its own culture—being the best in customer service. To achieve that strategy, Zappos created a “culture of happiness” (their own term). They recognized that this culture relied on training employees well, trusting them to do their jobs well, and respecting the decisions they make.

Innovation was once pretty straightforward and was reserved for products or services, but now it’s all about strategy innovation too. We understand it differently; therefore, it’s more critical than ever to be clear on what your innovation expectations are. It can mean the difference between game-changing success and an unmitigated failure for you and your company.

What does innovation mean to you and your business?

More about Lisa

Lisa Parker has extensive experience in leadership strategy, team building, organization development and assessments, and innovation process management. Her specialties are building innovation-capable organizations, team dynamics and communication, emotional intelligence, strategic thinking, design thinking and change, transition management, and the creative process. Follow her on Twitter @Stratovationist.

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