Is 'innovation' now the most overused word in business?

Is 'innovation' the new 'synergy'? The I-word appeared more than 33,000 times in annual and quarterly reports last year.

Is "innovation" the new "synergy"?

That's the question recently put forth by The Wall Street Journal's Leslie Khow, who observes that businesses of all stripes now repeatedly describe themselves as being at the cutting edge of innovation.

In an infographic accompanying her article, she makes the following observations:

  • The word "innovation" was used 33,528 times in quarterly and annual reports last year.
  • "Innovation" was used in the titles of 255 books published just within the past 90 days.
  • 43% of companies in a recent survey now say they have a "chief innovation officer."
  • 28% of business schools use "innovation." "innovate," or "innovative" in mission statements.

"Like the once-ubiquitous buzzwords 'synergy' and 'optimization,' 'innovation' is in danger of becoming a cliché—if it isn't one already," Khow warns.

In a responding post, Lou Hoffman says the killing of the I-word has been building up for several years, and cites a study his firm conducted in 2009, which found, at the time, 144,421 articles citing it. This was more than triple the number just five years before. Likewise, by 2009, 40,656 news releases used the I-word, double the rate from five years before that.

The problem is the term has been co-opted. Many companies are using the term "innovation" to imply momentous change, even for ordinary tweaks to products or services.

But what is innovation? Many of the stories that appear here on SmartPlanet talk about significant innovations, from new forms of transportation to new forms of housing to medical breakthroughs. In his book The New Polymath, Vinnie Mirchandani observes how people are converging thinking from different disciplines (such as IT and healthcare) to apply new types of thinking to old problems.

But do most organizations have cultures of innovation that encourage new, unconventional thinking? It doesn't come from marketspeak, annual reports or press releases. A culture of innovation springs from a willingness to try new approaches, to go against the conventional wisdom, to bring together unlikely collaborators (such as artists and statisticians), and even to fail over and over again.

It means a willingness to disrupt, even if it means undermining a current product.

How many companies are ready and willing for that?

(Photo: US Department of Commerce.)

This post was originally published on


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