Stop Confusing Innovation with Technology

As anyone who is paying attention knows: “innovation” is important to every single brand on the planet.

How do we know? Because nearly every CEO talks about “innovation” as a differentiator. Every start-up, it seems, refers to their value proposition as “innovative”. And don’t even get me started on all the “innovative” ninjas, gurus and self-anointed experts that sell based on the importance of being… you guessed it… “innovative.”

With all this talk about innovative innovation, you may have noticed a few things:

  • Nearly every Twitter chat and high-powered business panel at every conference has at least one question about “How can innovation/technology help us accomplish our <insert buzzword here> goals?”
  • Nearly every digital media outlet and blog seems to believe they can’t be relevant without talking about innovation/technology
  • The topic of innovation is highly prone to clichéd conversation about technology, as if innovation can’t exist without technology

Which all leads me to this conclusion: “innovative” has become not just a buzzword, but a me-too play that is far-too-often portrayed as a technology-based savior of businesses, careers, consultancies and enterprise everywhere. Even worse – especially among the ninjas, gurus and experts – the word “technology” is used interchangeably with “innovation.”

“Innovative” has become not just a buzzword, but a me-too play that is far-too-often portrayed as a technology-based savior of businesses, careers, consultancies and enterprise everywhere.

So let’s set the record straight:

  • Innovation need not be driven by code, SaaS or the coolest start-up; history shows us that low-tech creativity born on something as innocuous as an Applebee’s napkin, and later put to good use, has great impact.
  • Especially when it comes to choosing efficiency over treating humans as they deserve to be treated, technology-based innovation has a dark side, too (the tragic impact of Applicant Tracking Systems on candidate experience in the recruiting world, for instance).

Don’t get me wrong: I am a recovering Silicon Valley engineer who, in 1984, had a first-of-its-kind IBM PCjr on my desk. When that didn’t meet expectations, I bought a Macintosh before most had even heard of Apple. I proudly owned one of the first (and biggest) cell phones ever made by Motorola and was thrilled with my suction-cup mounted Magellan GPS. Having worked in a 100% virtual capacity since 1999, I have embraced new digital, networking and communication innovation/technology at every turn. So I’m not exactly a Luddite.

Innovation need not be driven by code, SaaS or the coolest start-up; history shows us that low-tech creativity born on something as innocuous as an Applebee’s napkin, and later put to good use, has great impact.

And yet, I am convinced: even in the Social Age, it is the simplest, most human innovations that are held in the highest regard:

  • Zappos’ ridiculously strong focus on customer experience
  • HCLT’s rebirth as an “Employees First, Customers Second” company
  • Morning Star’s trust and respect of every team member to do their job well
  • The Container Store’s empowering of every employee to be a problem-solver first
  • Pirch’s policy of enabling customers, right there on the showroom floor, to cook on a stove before buying, or to shave in a sink before ordering

Each of these examples are insanely creative and highly respected; no doubt they will be forever emulated. Yet none of them – despite their status as innovative – have anything to do with technology. Instead, they are about treating people right, active listening and respect for the customer.

This type of innovation can’t get any further away from technology – or get us any closer to being more human – than that.

Let’s stop confusing innovation with technology. And let’s agree: if an innovation doesn’t somehow enable us to better serve our employees, customers, collaborators and stakeholders, perhaps we shouldn’t consider it innovative in an impactful way. Maybe it’s just technology.

 

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Image credit: everythingpossible / 123RF Stock Photo

Mark Babbitt is a speaker, author and blogger who serves as CEO and Founder of YouTern, a social community for college students, recent graduates and young professionals that Mashable calls a "Top 5 Online Community for Starting Your Career." He is also President of Switch and Shift and CMO and co-founder of ForwardHeroes.org. Mark is the father of five and a grandfather; he and the woman who tolerates him (barely) call Seattle, Washington home.

  • Good point. And, innovation doesn’t mean you have to throw out a bunch of existing good practices along with the things you need to change. Just focus on what you want to be different (which is often sitting in front of you), build the idea / plan and then get started with the real, observable small steps that lead to the significant change.

  • KDS

    This is a really key topic. I am looking for good example of non-tech innovation. There is a link that mentions Applebee’s Napkin, but the post linked to does not mention that. Can you tell me what this is a reference to?

  • very good piece

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