Don’t worry about the words, worry about the work.

no need to argueDoing anything for the first time is difficult.  It goes with the territory.  Instead of seeing the associated anxiety as unwanted and unpleasant, maybe you can use it as an indicator of importance.  In that way, if you don’t feel anxious you know you’re doing what you’ve done before.

Innovation, as a word, has been over used (and misused).   Some have used the word to repackage the same old thing and make it fresh again, but more commonly people doing good work attach the word innovation to their work when it’s not.  Just because you improved something doesn’t mean it’s innovation.  This is the confusion made by the lean and Six Sigma movements – continuous improvement is not innovation.  The trouble with saying that out loud is people feel the distinction diminishes the importance of continuous improvement.  Continuous improvement is no less important than innovation, and no more.  You need them both – like shoes and socks.  But problems arise when continuous improvement is done in the name of innovation and innovation is done at the expense of continuous improvement – in both cases it’s shoes, no socks.

Coming up with an acid test for innovation is challenging.  Innovation is a know-it-when-you-see-it thing that’s difficult to describe in clear language.  It’s situational, contextual and there’s no prescription.   [One big failure mode with innovation is copying someone else’s best practice.  With innovation, cutting and pasting one company’s recipe into another company’s context does not work.] But prescriptions and recipes aside, it can be important to know when it’s innovation and when it isn’t.

If the work creates the foundation that secures your company’s growth goals, don’t worry about what to call it, just do it.  If that work doesn’t require something radically new and different, all-the-better.  But you likely set growth goals that were achievable regardless of the work you did.  But still, there’s no need to get hung up on the label you attach to the work.  If the work helps you sell to customers you could not sell to before, call it what you will, but do more of it.  If the work creates a whole new market, what you call it does not matter.  Just hurry up and do it again.

If your CEO is worried about the long term survivability of your company, don’t fuss over labelling your work with the right word, do something different.  If you have to lower your price to compete, don’t assign another name to the work, do different work.  If your new product is the same as your old product, don’t argue if it’s the result of continuous improvement or discontinuous improvement.  Just do something different next time.

Labelling your work with the right word is not the most important thing.  It’s far more important to ask yourself – Five years from now, if the company is offering a similar product to a similar set of customers, what will it be like to work at the company?  Said another way, arguing about who is doing innovation and who is not gets in the way of doing the work needed to keep the company solvent.

If the work scares you, that’s a good indication it’s meaningful.  And meaningful is good.  If it scares you because it may not work, you’re definitely trying something new.  And that’s good.  But it’s even better if the work scares you because it just might come to be.  If that’s the case, your body recognizes the work could dismantle a foundational element of your business – it either invalidates your business model or displaces a fundamental technology.   Regardless of the specifics, anxiety is a good surrogate for importance.

In some cases, it can be important what you call the work.  But far more important than getting the name right is doing the right work.  If you want to argue about something, argue if the work is meaningful.  And once a decision is reached, act accordingly.  And if you want to have a debate, debate the importance of the work, then do the important work as fast as you can.

Do the important work at the expense of arguing about the words.

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Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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