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.
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.