“Innovation”: Startup Culture’s Favorite (and most dishonest) Buzzword

If you’re anything like me, you absolutely hate buzzwords. They’re everywhere. On social media its impossible to scroll too far without seeing phrases like “sustainability”, “globalization”, “having an impact” flash across the screen. Though all buzzwords originate out of some sort of defined context, they all become devoid of meaning once they are overused enough.

What I find particularly annoying, and predictable, is that this behavior extends to digital business.  Take for example this cringe-worthy IBM add:

After watching this, I imagine a room full of marketing executives  asking each other the following question: “How many buzzwords can we fit into a single commercial?”

To the average consumer who may be watching this commercial on TV or any other medium, it may appear that IBM offers cutting-edge technology that will radically transform your business at the snap of your fingers. However, if one to really sit back and critically listen to the advertisement, it would be just as difficult to determine what exactly the IBM Cloud offers as is it is to determine what any millennial means by “I want to have an impact”.

Though big business is replete with examples of buzzwords in action, arguably the worst perpetrator is Silicon Valley’s startup culture. Words/phrases like “disruption”, “scalability”, and “IOT” are used ad nauseam and seem to mean almost nothing on their own. One buzzword, however, stands out as the most overused buzzword of all: Innovation.

innovation

I will admit, Silicon Valley is replete with examples of innovative companies. Firms like Apple, PayPal, Google, Facebook, among many others, are all examples of innovative firms that have changed people’s lives for the better.

However, there are numerous examples where the term innovation does not apply. As recently as last week, we read about how many Silicon Valley startups have “innovation labs” that do nothing other than making the firm appear innovative. In reality, these labs rarely ever impact these firms’ core business.

In other cases, startups tend to use terms innovation when really they should describe themselves as extensions of existing technology. Take for example recent Y Combinator graduates. All of these startups portray to be truly innovative but are really just “an x for y market.”

  • Flutterwave is the Stripe/Paypal for Africa.
  • Grab is the Uber/Lyft for Southeast Asia
  • JustRide is the GetAround for India
  • Squire is the OpenTable for barbershops

And the list goes on. Yes, all of these businesses are changing the way people go about their lives. Furthermore, all of these businesses are providing worthwhile and valuables services to their users. However, it is impossible to argue that these firms aren’t copying existing technology/business models, adjusting them, and applying them to a different market. Though doing as much is MUCH easier said than done, it is not truly innovative.

There are important distinctions that must be made. For example, Google was not the first search engine, but their page rank algorithm was what was necessary to fundamentally changed the way people search for information. The iPhone was not the first “smartphone”, but its design radically changed the way people communicate all around the world.

When I hear Silicon Valley techies throw around the word “innovative” when describing their own firms, I can’t help but cringe on the inside. This is because at some level these people are likening themselves to companies that have accomplished truly great feats that have radically changed the world. At some level, to throw the phrase around in current fashion is intellectually dishonest.

The term innovation should be reserved for those who fundamentally change the way the world works. It should not be used for those who recycle the ideas of others or are attempting to appear innovative for its own sake.

6 comments

  1. This is an interesting post that could generate some great debates. After reading it, I agree with you in the sense that innovation is more about making an impact than being successful. The literal definition is a “new method, idea, product, etc.” so, as you said, if a product or service is replicating other products or services is it truly innovative? The word has seemed to evolve to mean more than just its literal definition, but I do think it is overused. I think my favorite buzzword today is “unicorn”. I’m sure you have heard it, but how many companies out there are truly a “unicorn” company? I guess this goes back to the cliché that actions speak louder than words. Companies have to back up these buzzwords that they use with their products or services.

    Great post, and I am glad someone finally said it…enough of all of these buzz words!

  2. I think companies love the “innovation” technique because it’s basically impossible to phrase innovation as a bad thing: companies can be incredibly vague about the products they sell/services they offer and what they are actually innovating, but as long as customers believe that something about the company represents forward progress they will be more likely to listen to what they have to say. For example, if car commercials were more honest they’d be incredibly boring most of the time: here we are making incremental improvements on last year’s model, most of which you won’t notice! Instead, many ads focus on the more abstract idea of “innovation” bringing us into the future. Silicon Valley giants are no different, and if anything an impression of innovation is a necessity when most of the products rely on new tech.

  3. “Game changers,” “disruptions,” “innoventing”…fine I made the last one up but let’s admit it, it easily sounds like a future Silicon Valley mash up of inventing + innovating. Buzzword usage and being able to decipher them are almost becoming a career in and of themselves (here’s looking at you Engadget and TechCrunch) but jokes aside, this really does seem to be the era of tech companies inflating their self importance to stratospheric levels. The amount of firms that are actually enacting serious change are becoming few and far between (Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos notwithstanding). Let’s see a Silicon Valley that’s not as cartoonish as the HBO series!

  4. This is a very valid point, and I do agree wholeheartedly with what you said in this blog post. I was once asked, “Tell me about a time when you came up with an innovative solution to a challenge” during an interview (a management consulting firm). I told the interviewer about a time when I took an initiative in creating a group of peer tutors for an econometrics course that many students needed individual help with (with insufficient room for help from TAs and professor) at LSE, where the institution deeply supported individual learning environment without much help provided. It involved figuring out the potential demand for students’ interest, coming up with a responsible group of tutors, and incentivizing them without a grade boost. Well, I thought that was the best example I could use, but he still said it was not innovative enough. After this incident, I started to question what it truly means to be innovative if it doesn’t mean a solution that has not been implemented before and changes the way an institution promotes its educational system. If the methodology is the key distinction that makes a certain project truly innovative rather than the goal, this buzzword “innovation” must be used to give a credit for a company that used a methodology that no one could think of and had a huge impact in the end. I’m still not sure what would satisfy that interviewer for that question lol.

  5. Great thoughts Mark! Innovation is a big word, and somehow they are overused in many context. Silicon Valley is not the only one doing “innovative” work like that. Although there are numerous great ideas flying around, disruptive ones are very limited, and they are very easy to be copied once someone see it succeed in certain area. In the one hand, that means the business model scales; in the other hand, that leads to a lot of copycats which may or may operate slightly different. It is really a buzzword, and one has to think over every time they use it.

  6. Hi Mark, really liked your stance, “The term innovation should be reserved for those who fundamentally change the way the world works.” Perhaps I’m running with that definition out of context, but I do think that could provide worthwhile ideal. Sure, Apple could innovate year to year for the latest Iphone, but if there was a value placed on benefitting society and changing lives, couldn’t social issues be solved by company’s “innovations?” I’d love to see a world in which business innovation could be more socially-minded, or to your point, be re-appropriated to underprivileged markets.

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