Innovation: Back to the Basics
By Jeffrey Baumgartner


Following some recent discussions in the Imagination Club forum and with some friends in the innovation business, it has become obvious to me that the innovation profession lacks something most other professions take for granted: a common language. A good example given by one member of the club is two computer programmers talking about their work. To people with little knowledge of computer and software technology, it will seem like the programmers are speaking a foreign language. They will use words unfamiliar to non-experts and use commonplace words in strange ways. Yet the programmers will understand each other very well. This is because both experts will know the terminology of their profession and will not need to define these terms in order to have a deep technical conversation.

Yet in the innovation business, such a common language does not really exist. Indeed, it can often be difficult to find two consultants who will even agree on a definition for the word “innovation”. That is certainly not a problem for computer consultants! They will both have a very similar notion of what a computer is!

To make matters worse, a number of innovation consultants are making up their own words in order to demonstrate their own innovativeness as well as to show off a unique selling proposition (USP). This is essentially a good thing – after all if an innovation consultant is not innovative herself, how can she help her clients become more innovative? Nevertheless, this making up of words adds to confusion in the field.

The Consequences

The lack of a consistent jargon and shared definitions of innovation related terminology has serious consequences that affect innovation service providers, who include trainers, coaches, consultants and software providers; as well as the clients to whom they sell their services. Specifically, many highly competent service providers are finding it difficult to sell their services. At the same time, companies whose senior managers are keen to push forward innovation are unable to make purchase decisions that would enable their firms to become more innovative.

Let's imagine a company called Acme Inc. The CEO has been reading up on business innovation, almost certainly subscribes to Report 103 and has been talking to associates and others. As a result, she has some ideas about the needs of her company. She puts a manager, call him Mark, in charge of innovation. Mark then does his own research, draws up what he believes to be the company's needs and then contacts several consultancies and invites them to bid on consulting and training projects.

Each consulting firm pitches their services with a slick, professional PowerPoint slide show which defines what they perceive to be Acme's key weaknesses and strengths in innovation as well as recommended plans of action. Each agency is clearly competent and has an impressive list of clients. However, each consultancy has described the problem, their approach and their aims differently. In some cases, they seem to be talking about similar actions, but they are using different words. In other cases, they are using common words to describe what seem to be completely different activities!

No One Wins

As a result, Mark has a lot of information which has left him more confused than he was before he began researching innovation! None of the presentations matched his understanding of his company's needs. Nevertheless, he prepares a report of the results together with his recommendations and a budget request to the CEO.

She is also confused. She had her own clear ideas about her company's needs. Yet none of the consultants nor Mark mentioned several of her chief concerns. And the proposals are confusing and contradictory. In the end, the CEO may very well decide that none of the consultancies can meet Acme's needs and decide not to hire anyone.

However, all of the consultants may very well have described similar problems and goals! But, lack of commonly defined terms meant that their proposals were unclear, particularly when compared to each other and the expectations of Mark and the CEO.

Based on conversations I have been having, this seems to be happening rather more frequently than many of us realise. And it does no one any good!

Audacious Move

Fortunately, I have a solution! In what will doubtless be seen as an audacious move on my part, I will over the next few months write about the basics of corporate innovation in our eJournal, Report 103! I will define some regularly used terms and describe some standard processes.

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Jeffrey Baumgartner
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Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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