Why You Must Define Innovation

(Hint: It’s All About Efficiency)

Why You Must Define Innovation

GUEST POST from Robyn Bolton

As the world around you becomes more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA), you know that you need to build skills to navigate it and inspire others to follow your path.

But what if you are the source of ambiguity? 

Because you are. Every time you speak.

The words we use always have clear meaning and intent to us but may not (and often don’t) have the same meaning and intent to others. 

That’s why one of the first and most essential things a company can do when starting its innovation journey is to decide what “innovation” means. It may seem like an academic exercise, but it becomes very practical when you discover that one person thinks it means something new to the world, another thinks it’s a new product, and a third thinks it means anything commercialized.

Ambiguity = Efficiency?

“Innovation” isn’t the only word that is distractingly ambiguous. Language, in general, evolved to be ambiguous because ambiguity makes it more efficient. In 2012, cognitive scientists at MIT found the ambiguity–efficiency link, noting “words with fewer syllables and easier pronunciation can be ‘reused,’ avoiding the need for a vast and increasingly complex vocabulary.” 

You read that right. In language, ambiguity leads to efficiency.

Every time you speak, you’re ambiguous. You’re also efficient.

The RIGHT level of Ambiguity = Efficiency!

In 2014, researchers at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona found that language’s ambiguity is critical to communicating complex ideas,

“the researchers argue that the level of ambiguity we have in language is at just the right level to make it easy to speak and be understood. If every single object and concept had its own unique word, then language is completely unambiguous – but the vocabulary is huge. The listener doesn’t have to do any guessing about what the speaker is saying, but the speaker has to say a lot. For example, “Come here” might have to be something like “I want you to come to where I am standing.” At the other extreme, if the same word is used for everything, that makes it easy for the speaker, but the listener can’t tell if she is being told about the weather or a rampaging bear.”


Either way, communication is hard. But Sole and Seoane argue that with just the right amount of ambiguity, the two can find a good trade-off.”

A certain level of ambiguity is efficient. Too much or too little is inefficient.

How to find the RIGHT level of Ambiguity for “Innovation”

In everyday life, it’s ok for everyone to have a slightly different definition of innovation because we all generally agree it means “something new.”  Sure, there will be differences of opinion on some things (is a new car an “innovation” if it just improved on the previous model?). Still, overall, we can exist in this world and interact with each other despite, or maybe because of, the ambiguity.

Work is a different story. If you are responsible for, working on, or even associated with innovation, you better be very clear on what “innovation” means because its definition determines expectations and success for what you do. If it means one thing to you and a different thing to your boss, and a third thing to her boss, you’re in for a world of disappointment and pain.

Let’s avoid that.  Instead:

  1. Define the word
  2. Get everyone to agree on the definition
  3. Use the word and immediately follow it with, “And by that, I mean (definition)”

Gently correct people when they use the word to mean something other than the agreed-upon definition. Once everyone uses the word correctly, you can stop defining it every time because its meaning has taken root.

So, the next time someone rolls their eyes and comments on the “theoretical” or “academic” (i.e., not at all practical, useful, or actionable) exercise of defining innovation, smile and explain that this is an exercise in efficiency.

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