Stop calling it ‘innovation’

By Nadya Zhexembayeva

Let me start with the obvious: “Innovation” is a buzzword. In fact, it’s been a buzzword for so long you could say we’ve developed a cult around it. Whether in the classroom, the newsroom or the boardroom, innovation is our global darling. There’s only one problem: We might love innovation, but most of our employees hate it.

I first discovered this dirty little secret shortly after leaving my safe job as a business school professor to start my own consulting business, focusing on—you guessed it—helping companies learn how to innovate.

Armed with the latest research, all fired up with ideas for ways to help my first client, I found myself face-to-face with a line manager, who told me, point blank: “For you people, innovation is ‘all that.’ For us, it’s extra work with no results or—much worse—lost jobs.”

Since then, I’ve heard this idea posed in various ways at some point in every single project I’ve worked on. And the data bear out these fears.

So here’s a thought: Stop calling it innovation. Instead of scaring everyone off, how about finding language that in your specific context—your industry or your country—speaks of continuity and benefit?

When engaging internally with employees, Danfoss, a global manufacturing company, has branded its innovation process around the simple, manageable word: “idea.” While not everyone thinks they can be innovative, nearly everyone has at least one idea.

Similarly, Knauf Insulation, a leading construction materials company, puts “reinvention days” at the heart of its process, betting on a term that projects continuity and accessibility. Others choose words or phrases for their efforts, programs and functions that focus on the end benefits for employees, such as simplicity, organizational health or simply staying in business.

The word innovation might speak to your external stakeholders, but when it comes to engaging your employees, it’s time to stop using it. Whatever term you choose, make it about your audience—not you, your public relations department or the next big Davos announcement. That way, real innovation might actually stand a chance.

Nadya Zhexembayeva is the chief reinvention officer at WE EXIST Reinvention Agency, a boutique consultancy firm.

Image credits: Ekaterina Zaitseva |


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