I did an episode of the Clearleft podcast on innovation a while back:
Everyone wants to be innovative …but no one wants to take risks.
The word innovation is often bandied about in an unquestioned positive way. But if we acknowledge that innovation is—by definition—risky, then the exhortations sound less positive.
“We provide innovative solutions for businesses!” becomes “We provide risky solutions for businesses!”
I was reminded of this when I saw the website for the Podcast Standards Project. The original text on the website described the project as:
…a grassroots coalition working to establish modern, open standards, to enable innovation in the podcast industry.
I pushed back on that wording (partly because I’ve seen the word “innovation” used as a smoke screen for user-hostile practices like tracking and surveillance). The wording has since changed to:
…a grassroots coalition dedicated to creating standards and practices that improve the open podcasting ecosystem for both listeners and creators.
That’s better. It’s more precise.
Am I nitpicking? Only if you think that “innovation” and “improvement” are synonyms. I don’t think they are.
Innovation implies change. Improvement implies positive change.
Not all change is positive. Not all innovation is positive.
Innovation goes hand in hand with disruption. Again, disruption involves change. But not necessarily positive change.
Think about the antonyms of change and disruption: stasis and stability. Those words don’t sound very exciting, but in some arenas they’re exactly what you should be aiming for; arenas like infrastructure or standards.
Not to get all pace layers-y here, but it seems to me that every endeavour has a sweet spot for innovation. For some projects, too little innovation is bad. For others, too much innovation is worse.
The trick is knowing which kind of project you’re working on.
(As a side note, I think some people use the word innovation to describe the generative, divergent phase of a design project: “how might we come up with innovative new approaches?” But we already have a word to describe the practice of generating novel and interesting ideas. That word isn’t innovation. It’s creativity.)