Rethinking Innovation

If you’re like me, you may find the word "Innovation" daunting. It’s used these days in every context imaginable, including the totally ridiculous. When it shows up in conversation, or in some expectation a client may have, common sense often goes out the window. In its place is an all-consuming obsession to devise some earth-shaking, new service or product. What if a perfect solution to whatever problem being addressed is some teeny tiny, incremental shift in thinking, a new way of applying something that already exists, or, horrors, simply waiting and doing nothing where we’re typically inclined to act.

I attended a workshop presented by Larry Keeley of the Chicago-based Doblin Group who offered an interesting perspective on the concept of innovation. In paraphrasing from his article, The Greatest Innovations of All Time, he suggests that the goal should be to create platforms that can cut across industries. These platforms can then facilitate the integration of ordinary ideas into a new whole that goes beyond "mere inventions."

Okay, let’s get to work. Although you were quickly reading this post, fingers poised to click on to the next exciting one, I invite you to share a term or phrase that you think could substitute for "Innovation." This might go a long way in curtailing the paralysis of creative thinking and fear induced when we’re tasked to INNOVATE. Better yet, imagine the fear you’ve felt when your company establishes a new division you’ll head up called the Widget Makers Innovation Team. Pretty scary. Are there some less frightening terms that would help us get closer to Keeley’s suggestion and unleash our natural inclination to free-flow? Before asking this of you, it’s only fair that I share some I’ve come up with, so here goes:

  • Pragmatic ingenuity
  • Real Focus
  • Simple Brilliance
  • Tiny Change
  • Creative Integration

You may consider some of these lame, but work with me here. One way to see which one of these could work, is to play with the title of this post - Rethinking Innovation – and substitute your term or phrase for "Innovation." For example, the new title would be Rethinking Pragmatic Ingenuity, Rethinking Simple Answers, Rethinking Tiny Change and so on. You get the hang of it.

Let’s take Pragmatic Ingenuity, specifically. I was in a village in Nigeria several years ago, and saw one of many examples of smart, integrated thinking. This motorcycle repair man you see here (photo – diverseimages) was doing something pretty interesting. In the village, there are no sidewalks. Villagers carrying pails of water, food, children on their backs, and so on, need enough time to scurry out of the way when a vehicle is fast approaching. The motorbikes, some can afford, have horns that are no match for blasting car horns. So motorbike owners, especially those that use them to run gravity-defying taxi services, have their motorbikes outfitted with reclaimed car horns. This way, the horns are as loud as cars — a feature, which they say protects them from being hit by cars, while limiting the number of pedestrians they hurt. Mind you, car owners find their solution pretty annoying, as they often maneuver their cars out of the way, assuming another car is coming around a blind bend on a swerving road, only to find that they made way for a scrawny little moped.

Would this qualify as innovation or Innovation? Is it not real-time, pragmatic ingenuity? No over-thinking or pressure to be grandiose — just a smart integration of existing ordinary elements.

You get the point. Sometimes we’re just too "over-educated" or "over-experienced" for our own good, or simply too "tensed-up" by our wrongly-directed intent to invent something new. I wonder what other solutions to local and global challenges would evolve if we simply stop thinking that innovation is something that happens in some remote conference room or a fancy corporate retreat. Looking at how the indigent solve survival problems just might go a long way in relaxing our minds to free flow…

Anaezi Modu, Founder
ReBrand and other related initiatives.


Add New Comment


  • paige arnof-fenn

    The best innovations are simple I think, doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way. They make you think it is amazing no one has ever done it before. Some great innovations for me are things like Dutch Boy Paints in a redesigned package where you can pour the paint using a handle & spout vs. a messy can, Heinz ketchup in a squeezable plastic upside down container or the merry-go-round for children to pay on in developing countries that is really pumping safe water from the ground. All great innovations that make the world less stressful, more fun, and just a better place.

  • Christopher Butler

    I think the key point here is what motivates the "innovation." In the case of the motorbike drivers, modifying their horn could be a matter of life or death, so finding a simple and effective solution is innovation motivated by need. However, how often have you heard the iPhone touted as an "innovation?" Has it solved some significant problem our society has? I don't think so. In fact, it's probably created a few more problems- technology addiction among them. Perhaps the real "innovation" with the iPhone was the marketing that convinced millions of people to spend money they don't have buying a gadget they don't need (the majority of iPhone owners already had a cellphone, computer and mp3 player).

  • Kai Itameri-Kinter

    Innovation is certainly overused and misused, but I think it also has value if applied in a rigorous and useful way. Rigor has been a central tenet behind the research and field work of the firm I work for, Innosight, which specializes in the field of disruptive innovation as clearly defined through HBS professor's Clayton Christensen's work in the Innovator's Dilemma and more recent publications. When clear definitions backed up by intellectually honest analysis are used to define innovations, I think you can develop tools to implement truly innovative ventures, in whatever form you have previously defined. This way the term can convey meaning and actually translate into new growth and business change. I feel like most people who use the term innovation are usually referring to change in a general way, which is not a particularly useful application of the term.

  • David-Henry Oliver

    The problem with the term "innovation", I think, is overuse and misuse. Perhaps I'm guilty of this, afterall, I have posted a few entries titled "The Stuff of Innovation"(you be the judge). It's become a tag that is used by producers of self-proclaimed "innovations" to suggest value.

    My personal design-term pet peeve is "the creatives" to describe designers and design groups. It's kind of like describing yourself as "nice" or "smart."

    It reminds me of the SNL skit, "and gosh darnit, people like me."

  • Anaezi Modu

    Great term! What a way to inspire a game-like approach to seeing what can be discovered in what exists.

  • Josh Silverman

    i was recently at a non-innovation-led retreat, and the substitute term i learned was BFOs: blinding flashes of the obvious. i'm going with that!