Focus on Innovating and You’ll Get Innovation

In the minds of many people, the words innovation and innovating are synonyms—two words that mean exactly the same thing.

Technically, that may be true! Yet as a business school professor and a consultant who has taught thousands of business leaders how to innovate, I’ve discovered that most people respond tothese words as if they are quite different. As a result, I’ve developed a strong preference for innovating in my training work.

Let me explain the difference.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that the noun innovation often triggers anxiety and stress among employees, especially frontline workers. I’m not quite sure why this is true. Maybe it’s because they’ve seen so many articles in which supposed “geniuses” like Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos are presented as “masters of innovation.” It seems that people who are invited to attend a program on innovation assume that their boss is expecting them to come up with the next blockbuster product, or to uncover a completely new market space. The pressure is on—and they hate it! 

Having noticed this common reaction, I avoid using the word innovation when I teach. Instead, I refer to innovating—or I simply use the verb to innovate. And then, something curious happens. Gradually the sense of tension and fear in the room disappears. 

The reason, I think, is that the word innovating doesn’t imply any specific outcome or result. Instead, it refers to a process, an activity—a set of behaviors that anyone can learn and practice. As I emphasize in my teaching, innovating is simply about looking for new ideas, developing and testing them, with no guarantees as to what you will find. Yet, quite often, the results are remarkable. 

This approach relieves the pressure. And it gives permission to everyone in the room to try their hand at innovating. After all, very few of us are “geniuses,” able to produce breakthrough insights on command. But you don’t need any special talent to engage in innovating activities. Innovating can be taught, guided, and supported by tools, techniques, and structured processes. 

If innovation is the tip of an iceberg—the impressive peak that rises above the water level—then innovating is what goes on under the water, where the collective capability of everyone in the organization can be found and activated. 

So if you find the word innovation a bit intimidating, forget about it! Turn your mind to innovating instead. That’s where the magic really happens!


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