Innovation Isn't Porn, It's A Relationship

Sep 20, 2013 (05:09 AM EDT)

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When innovation is compared to anything, it illustrates the fundamental difficulty we have in the representation of abstract concepts. InformationWeek columnist Coverlet Meshing recently described innovation as "executive porn," and at one level that metaphor works nicely.

Yes, innovation is overused, and particularly in the technology sector it is often a cheap pickup line. And I admit that there are the equivalent of whores and sexual surrogates in the innovation management field.

Innovation also fits the "I know it when I see it" category like porn. When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used that phrase as his threshold for obscenity, his intent was on par with today's struggle to define innovation and find a repeatable way to produce it. After that, though, the innovation-is-porn metaphor breaks down, and Meshing starts to take on the air of a jilted lover who can spare no mercy for his lost object of desire.

[ Why does innovation fail? Read about the Past Vs. Future Problem. ]

For the rest of us who know that porn and metaphor can serve a purpose and at the same time obstruct truth, let's think more flexibly about innovation. Meshing's column lambasts Harvard Business Review, but many of the models that HBR and academia distill are very useful in aiding our thinking. Of course, expecting the model to solve all our problems is as disturbing as a woman trying to look like a Barbie doll.

So if you want a metaphor, compare innovation to a relationship instead of porn.

Start with the idea that innovation is an everyday business activity. You have to work at it and pay attention to how it is doing. If you take that for granted and get caught up in the reliable tasks of the day, soon you may find it is no longer there to support you in times of need.

It is our experience that companies that are in those dire straights with their relationship with innovation need the rigor and discipline of process to rebuild it. Those companies that aren't having trouble with their innovation relationship may see such a process as pedantic.

Innovation Takes Passion, Intimacy, Commitment

So let's take a relationship model called the triangular theory of love and see if we can get a clearer understanding of innovation management. The triangular theory says intimacy, passion and commitment work together to define the nature of the relationship.

If you see innovation as pornography, it could be that your only component is passion. You lust after innovation as a simple desire.

Fun Exercise No. 1

Count how many books you bought because they had a topic that excited you but you never read. Ever done that with books about innovation? You might be more interested in the idea than the action it suggests. You're treating innovation as an object rather than the outcome of a relationship. It is unlikely that any interaction will fulfill you.

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Instead, let's add to our relationship with innovation some intimacy -- maybe by reading up a bit on it and creating some level of empathy with those who try to achieve it. The relationship starts to have a chance but still is not complete. With only passion and intimacy, it will be something you go to when bored, when frustrated, but you quickly tire of it and return to your other responsibilities.

Fun Exercise No. 2

Check out this Google Trends chart comparing the words leadership and innovation. Roll your mouse over the troughs and notice when interest declines -- the end of the year and the summer. Through the lens of this model, I would guess that vacations and year-end processes are affecting interest in both terms.

So now let's explore the other side of an imperfect relationship by dropping the passion and adding commitment. Now you have a companionate relationship, the kind where you would take a long trip together with limited resources because you know it will work out.

Fun Exercise No. 3

Add the word "innovative design" to your news feed. Notice how many products are launched and relaunched with small incremental improvements and claim to be innovative. If that bothers you, then you're likely questioning the passion for innovation that the team that pushed those changes through has.

You can see for yourself that your relationship with innovation will change over time and in different contexts. Definitions and models help us build good habits, make hard choices and balance our scarce resources. Metaphors are just models with context. So be careful which ones you use. As Ze Frank put it so wisely in his Invocation for Beginnings, make sure to use metaphors to help you understand the world, and have the strength to get rid of them when it is apparent they no longer work.

So if you are questioning your company's ability to innovate, take care in the model and metaphor that you use to create action. As far as fantasizing that one day you will accomplish a change that everyone sees as innovation, I highly recommend it. Just make sure you follow it up with some action.