Everywhere I look people are talking about innovation. It's like they just found their lost puppy.
I guess it helps when people like Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt say that innovation is the best way to save a company's future - but what are we talking about when we're talking about innovation.
The word "innovation" has been democratized (or high-jacked, depending on your point of view) like its cousin "strategy." Both words are now devoid of meaning. We use them to mean anything we want to when we want to sound like we have something important to say.
Innovation is now an all inclusive management term that is cut into three levels. The first two levels have been around for a long time. It is the third that is taking hold within organizations.
Level I is the Game Changer. This has always been with us. It's generally an elite activity carried out by some smart people who are usually not part of the establishment. They see discontinuities in the world, match them with an emerging (often unarticulated) customer need and come up with something that no one has ever thought of. Think of a young Bill Gates, Michael Dell or the current Mark Zuckerberg.
Level II are the Market Changers. These innovations happen within existing companies. Often they are developed by product experts. Their innovations extend a product or create a new business model for a new product. Some companies, like P & G are renown for their ability to constantly renew their businesses even in the face of short term shareholder demands. Others, like Nokia and Kodak, lost this talent.
Level III are the Work Changers. This is the new comer. This is the movement toward mass innovation - that is, the democratization of innovation. The concept here is: "ideas from everyone, everywhere." Innovation has become synonymous with "idea." The flood gates have opened to: employee engagement, continuous improvement, quality circles, team management, brainstorming, or any derivative of "change management."
This is a positive movement that will increase the effectiveness of organizations. Innovation gives us one more lever to open them up. One more way to move them away from tradition "command and control" management. I favor any lever that makes organization life more personally satisfying.
The downside of innovation democratization is being felt by the practitioners of "strategic innovation" - those who have lived and prospered at Levels I and II. The lives of these professional are in transition. Their expertise is being commoditized.
Innovation professionals need to rethink their value proposition. They have to confirm their focus: is it outside the organization or inside? These practitioners will be tempted with the sirens call of mass appeal; but does that compromise their unique value.
The choice is theirs. It's time to innovate!