Your innovations suck!
Knocking around in the creative industries like I do innovation is a word that I hear overused to the point of cliché. Innovation is the business equivalent of “turnt”. Don’t know what turnt means? Or you do and you think it’s daft – same thing goes for innovation.
Innovation is one of those words that gets chucked around by businesses from florists to big oil and when combined with passion to form the dynamic duo “passion for innovation” you know you have a giant super-vortex of suck, a black hole of creativity. Typing “passion for innovation” into Google throws up 14 and a half million results. So that’s hardly cutting edge is it?
What innovation is, in the world of business, is a red flag that the exact opposite is going on. It is a giant neon sign that screams – “WE’RE DOING THE SAME OLD SHIT BUT WE’VE PAINTED IT DIFFERENTLY!!!” When a company talks to me about their innovation programmes or their innovation labs I get bilious.
A lightbulb went off for me a few months ago when an engineer, of all people, decried innovation and said when most people talk about innovation they actually mean risk-free novelty. Right on Slide Rule Dude! That’s my more than 20 years of experience of the word in a nutshell.
Risk-free novelty is putting a hashtag on your advertising and high-fiving everyone in the room, it’s changing one of your corporate colours, it’s using a female voice for your marketing material, it’s referencing what was so hot 90 seconds ago in popular culture (see turnt). But that’s not innovation.
It gets attention, sure. That’s because the part of our brain that’s still just clambered out of the primordial ooze responds to movement and change. Those are basic survival instincts in play. These are the same instincts that make you almost involuntarily say to people “You’ve had a haircut” when they damn well know because they sat through the whole thing a paid some dude called Georgio $300 for the privilege. And how does that work out for you? Conversation dies awkwardly seconds after, right?
Risk-free novelty gets attention if you’re lucky but doesn’t sustain it. If your neighbour is wearing a lime green shirt you might notice that briefly but it won’t change anything. But if they rip down their $800,000 1-bedroom Auckland bungalow and live in a yurt you’re going to notice and want to know why.
That’s because your neighbour’s fundamental story has changed. They’ve gone from being like everyone else in the street to some suburban Genghis Khan. This is something that holds some attention and makes you take more than passing notice. There’s danger and change there – for your neighbour and possibly for property prices in the whole neighbourhood.
Let’s talk Kardashians for a moment. Bruce Jenner was an odd-ball bit player in the Kardashians – playing the tried and true role of kooky dad. Then Caitlyn appeared and the world took notice. Because the fundamental story changed. All of a sudden there was something new and different in the ongoing Kardashian narrative of conspicuous consumption and narcissism. People took notice.
They took notice enough to skate over the other story at the time – a car crash involving Caitlyn that left a woman dead. That, unfortunately, isn’t a new story for celebrities. They prang cars at regular intervals – all that changes is the varying levels of collateral damage.
So when companies tell me they want an innovative approach or have “a passion for innovation at the heart of our business” you can be sure any creativity in that business has shriveled
up and died.
Because to actually change your story takes real courage. Very few executives are prepared to be bold enough to actually re-write their company story. For a while they tried to get the guts by claiming things were “disruptive” but that has since retreated to the same place of blandness by becoming “let’s be the Uber of plumbing” or “let’s be the Uber of bakeries” – whatever that looks like.
What does re-writing your story look like then? It’s about changing how you do or say things in a fundamental way. It’s about altering the message. When Netflix and other streaming services came along they changed the story of how we watch TV. Binge watching became a thing – where we can follow a narrative through multiple hours at a time. People are prepared to invest time in a quality series and are prepared to pay upfront to avoid being interrupted with ads every 8 minutes. Some series were written and developed to be binge-watched and the traditional episodic structure of a television episode changed to allow for a longer story arc.
Changing the story of your brand might be moving away from competing on price to talking about how you create fun experiences. It might be going from being a government department that talks down to people to a bureaucracy that can laugh at itself (imagine that one coming to pass! Just after the point scientists discover the lost sock dimension).
You may not have anything so fundamental to change about the way you do business but if you want to hold people’s attention beyond the “you’ve had a haircut” moment you need something that’s interesting to say and it needs to be different from what you’ve said before. Not just the way in which it is delivered. When you take a real risk your audience picks up on that risk too – their primordial brain responds to it but then the real magic happens. The reasoned part of their brains engages with that risk and wants to know the whys and hows of it. If your story is strong then this is where the real innovation grabs them and draws them in. They respond to method behind the “madness.”
So next time you are in a meeting and someone talks about an innovative approach and it doesn’t involve re-writing the actual story of your product, company or project give them a slap. That’ll get attention and people might ask why you did it. Then you can suggest that everyone needs to think boldly and take a risk. For those companies that are gutsy enough to do it will leave their own people and their customers turnt for what’s to come.