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Some Old Thoughts on Novelty (A New Year’s Meditation)

Guest Post: Tony Proscio

Among the pleasures of the past year was my introduction to a new friend, Karl Brown of the Rockefeller Foundation, who wrote last March to ask why I had never included “innovation” on my list of public-interest jargon. After all, it has most of the characteristics that grate on people who pay attention to the language of civic and public affairs: it’s vain and self-glorifying, it’s numbingly overused, and its meaning has become so stretched out of shape that it can be (and is) easily stuck onto anything more recent than the Pleistocene megafauna. As Karl pointed out, “everything you do is technically ‘new’, in that this particular thing has never been done by you in that particular moment.” Consequently, from the minute you pour your first cup of coffee, you’re “innovating” left, right, and center. Got to be jargon, no?

I answered that, to my eye, not every obnoxious, overused word or phrase is jargon. For me, the test of jargon is whether the meaning is either too abstruse for an ordinary reader to decipher or else has become so distorted, weasely, or chameleon-like that it’s hard to know, in any given context, what the author might be trying to say. To me, the history of “innovation” looked pretty consistent: it was never a very precise word to begin with — even the original Latin simply means “make new” — and whatever you may think of the vanity and smugness of people who overuse the term, it’s never hard to guess what they’re trying to say. It’s just “Look, ma! I did something new!” Tiresome, yes; but obscure? Hardly.

To this, Karl (an expert in applied technology) explained that “innovation” actually does have, at least in recent years, a more precise and abstruse meaning than just “something new.” And most of the people who slather it all over their annual reports miss that narrower meaning entirely. In business-management circles — a burbling cauldron of jargon at the best of times — “innovation” refers to “the use of a new idea or method” that is then “accepted by markets, governments, and society.” The quoted phrases come from a Wikipedia article, but they evidently reflect some kind of intellectual orthodoxy venerated at the more expensive consulting firms.

So if I have this right, to be a real innovation something has to be, first, an original concept or technique — not just an adaptation or variation on something that happened yesterday — and second, eventually accepted for general use by some mass of people who matter. Other uses of “innovation” are just poseurs.

Gee, who knew? What we’re seeing here is the rise of a whole new piece of technical jargon, disguised as an ordinary term whose meaning all of us thought we understood. By way of example, Karl posits that the iPhone was a true innovation — a completely different approach to mobile phones, which then became wildly popular, successful, and imitated. By contrast, he wrote, some foundation that sets up a grantee network cannot claim to be innovative, because “networks of grantees are as old as the hills.” (Mind you, writing as someone who is now slightly older than the hills — but still younger than the Pleistocene megafauna — I remember a time when foundations actively discouraged their grantees from speaking to one another. “They’ll gang up on us,” one foundation greybeard warned me, back in the ’70s. But that’s another topic.)

With due respect to the iPhone, and to all those management consultancies that charge so much to redefine ordinary words for us, I still think this distinction between innovation and mere novelty is largely made up. It certainly has no basis in longstanding English usage. Although it may be useful to engineers and market analysts to have a word specially set aside for the really new-new and really successful ideas, I think it’s asking too much of ordinary English speakers to expect us to know that, henceforth, a plain old word meaning “something new” must now be reserved only for revolutionary gadgetry that changes the world.

Among other things, consider how blinkered this new definition is. If something has to be “accepted by governments, markets, and society” in order to be an innovation, then the Large Hadron Collider, the superconducting gizmo in Switzerland that may have found the Higgs boson, is not innovative. Say what? Well, sorry, LHC folks. But as of right now, there are hardly any governments and no markets — never mind society at large — scrambling to put supercolliders into general use. Scientifically breathtaking? OK, we’ll let you have that. But “innovative”? Don’t make us laugh.

But never mind. The whole argument may already be obsolete. Out there among the hyper-networked consulting classes, even this fancy new definition of “innovation” is evidently becoming passé — out-innovated by an even trendier word: “transformation.” Karl pointed me to a Bloomberg blogger, a specialist in business innovation and design, who declared as long ago as 2008 that “Innovation is dead.” The word, he writes,

is too narrow to generate radical alternative options and build risk-taking frontier skills needed to remake and restructure our lives, our economies, and our countries. We need a deeper, more robust concept. “Transformation” captures the key changes already underway and can help guide us into the future. It implies that our lives will increasingly be organized around digital platforms and networks that will replace edifices and big organizations …(Bruce Nussbaum, in the blog Nussbaum on Design, Bloomberg/Businessweek, Dec. 31, 2008)

When you see the word “transformation,” are digital platforms and networks what come to mind? Do you picture an apocalypse of Edifice Wrecks? A display of “risk-taking frontier skills” that would throw Buffalo Bill right off his galloping cayuse? If not, check back here next week for Part II of this entry: a closer look at “transformation” and its more athletic cousin, “game-changer.”

Tony Proscio, a planning, evaluation, and communication consultant to foundation and large nonprofit organizations, is also the creator of the Communications Network’s Jargon Finder.

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