We’ve all been there, in one of those dreadful meetings where Mr or Ms Important drones on and on about innovation and how important it all is.
It’s not that we disagree, not really, but we’ve heard it all before. We’ve heard the hackneyed examples, the strange invocations of ‘disruption’, and the seemingly obligatory quote from the likes of Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein.
We’ve seen the clumsy PowerPoints, laden with clichés so stale they seem to suck the very air out of the room – ‘thinking outside the box’, a phrase so vile it should be outlawed, chief among them. We’ve felt our souls die a little as yet another vapid innovation talk goes through its interminable motions.
Yes, we’ve all met the innovation bore.
The golden age of innovation talk
This is a creature very much of our age, the golden age of innovation talk. Whilst we’ve obviously talked about innovation before, it is no exaggeration to say that the last twenty years has seen a veritable explosion in this. Today, there is no end to the amount of books, magazine articles, LinkedIn-groups, and Instagram-feeds dedicated to pontificating about innovation. There is an entire industry of innovation talk, where innovation consultants write innovation books in order to be invited to keynote an innovation conference. (I should know, as I’ve lived this life…) A consequence of all this is a tendency for the innovation discussion to start repeating itself, legitimising itself through reiterating the same points over and over, until they turn into platitudes and banal clichés.
In addition to this, it’s a very limited number of companies and people who get to become the icons and standard bearers of innovation. Steve Jobs and Apple might be the most glaring examples, with the former having had the good fortune to die very near to his creative peak, but there are (a few) others. Google and Amazon, and of course Jeff Bezos, have a similar position today.
Elon Musk and his Tesla might be the newest addition to this roster, where his antics and stunts help to cultivate the image of a real-life Iron Man. As these companies and a very few people become the default figures through which innovation is discussed, the discourse becomes evermore standardised.
The safety of innovation talk
The innovation bore does not find this streamlining problematic, however. On the contrary, he (and let’s face it, it is often a he) revels in it. The innovation bore enjoys the safety of innovation talk, as it represents a narrative that can be repeated over and over without people being able to protest it. Innovation bores feels more important as they intone the buzzwords and show pictures of the icons. They may bore their audiences, but they themselves love innovation, for it gives them endless chances of hearing themselves speak.
There are several kinds of innovation bores. One is the innovation consultant or expert. They are in one way the masters, as they’ve honed their skills in repeating innovation clichés to the level of high art. Few people dare oppose them, even if they often make their audiences squirm in their seats as they speak of ‘digitalisation’ and ‘transformative innovation’ in rapturous tones. They are however often merely a slight annoyance, as they tend to more from organisation to organisation. Another is the colleague who is an innovation bore. They can be a real irritant, but as they do not necessarily get the chance to dominate meetings or projects, they cannot bore you all that often. No, the real danger lies in having a boss who is an innovation bore.
If you’re unlucky enough to be caught in this kind of a situation, you know the complexity thereof. Long speeches on innovation with little to no real content, what seems like an endless parade of innovation initiatives that rarely go anywhere, and the need to pepper any and all reports with ‘innovation-words’, so as to show one is a team-player. Simply stating that all this innovation talk is fatiguing will do very little, for a boss who is an innovation bore will think that this is proof positive that one doesn’t ‘get it’ or is ‘just too conservative’. So what can one do?
The key to understanding an innovation bore is the realisation that they’re mainly in it for the show. Their main fear is to look foolish or not with it, and if you play it smart, you can use this to your advantage. One way is through humor. Before their next big speech, find a way to say something like ‘My god, I saw the most inane talk on YouTube the other day. This guy was just doing slide after slide of what other, smarter people had said. When he came to Steve Jobs I was howling with laughter.’
Becoming their biggest fan
As an innovation bore cannot stand the idea of ridicule, they might start rethinking their approach. Another way, slightly more insidious, is to become their biggest fan. Innovation bores usually don’t like questions, as they can make them seem foolish. So be the eager attendee, asking a plethora of questions and for more specifics, and you may well find that the next speech is far shorter and more subdued.
But these are only tactics. The strategic thinker realises that the boss who is an innovation bore is a resource that can be managed. Bores wish to be seen and heard, and you can use this. Insist that your project is the kind of disruptive and transformative innovation initiative that will make him seem as Steve Jobs reborn to his superiors, and watch the resources flood in. Position your team as blue ocean explorers and maverick renegades (or whatever his preferred metaphor is), and use it to your political advantage. I mean, in this day and age, there is no escaping the innovation bores, and you know what they say: If you can’t beat them, join them…