Words seemingly lose their power through overuse, and nowhere is this more proven than in the workplace.
The average corporate strategy or plan is full of what are known as crutch words – that collection of phrases we fall back on when we’ve lost our footing while speaking. We grasp for familiar words to fill some space.
These crutch words include things like customer experience, agile working and high performance used in contexts in which, if you scratch the surface, you’ll see mean absolutely nothing. Arguably though, no one word is as used and abused as innovation.
Things are labelled as innovations that are nothing of the sort: every strategy is in search of it, the thought of being seen as not particularly innovative is career threatening.
So is innovation overrated?
Jason Fried maintains exactly that in one of his excellent provocations, saying the unsayable. The unsayable being the thing that deep down everyone knows to be true but saying it out loud would render them as a stick in the mud, a blocker or a relic.
“Innovation should almost never happen. It’s incredibly rare. It mostly happens by accident, not by intention. It’s wonderful when it does, but you merely fluctuate in and out of it, it’s not steady state.
Work is mostly mundane. It’s mostly maintenance. It’s mostly local improvement and iteration. Work is mostly… Work. Any innovation is an outlier, nearly a rounding error.”
Some of this is spot on. Innovation is incredibly rare, so the constant talk of it being common place, something our organisations do everyday is disingenuous. As I tweeted, ‘innovation’ is too often someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about avoiding doing the job they should be doing , and distracting everyone from the things that would actually make a difference to customers in the process.
Bruce Nussbaum declared that innovation died in 2008, killed off by overuse, misuse, narrowness, incrementalism and failure to evolve.
That’s why you get people here, here and here (quite understandably) calling for us to ‘just get the basics right’.
An outright focus on innovation, or even worse, agile methodologies, can lead to a lack of focus or even blatant disregard for the basics.
Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel argued this in a landmark piece written back in 2016:
“Critics point out the peddlers of innovation radically overvalue innovation. What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.”
They point out that the most unappreciated and undervalued forms of technological labour are also the most ordinary: those who repair and maintain technologies or processes that already exist, that were ‘innovated’ long ago.
In a typical company 99% of what people do is maintenance, as it should be. 99% of the time should be spent fine tuning the system. It’s not sexy, but it is necessary.
We need to start praising the importance of the maintainers, those individuals whose work keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things.
Workers are being sold a pup by being promised jobs that are exciting, ambitious, creative and innovative. Most work is pretty boring.
Even if you are one of the 1% and your role is more specifically around ‘innovation’ and future focus, most of it is grunt work with the occasional flash of inspiration. I had that flash in a one hour session with customers yesterday, but that’s probably it for this week.
Just like the modern world implores that we should be happy all the time (we aren’t and we are not meant to be), the modern workplace wants everyone to be engaged, energised and innovative when they simply don’t need to be.
People just need to be fulfilled
Fulfilment does not come from some fruitless search for innovation. It’s found in the little things – the everyday occurrences that come from our daily habits and interactions that make our world a little bit better, a little bit easier, for someone. Fulfilment because you attended to someone’s needs.
The maintainers of our organisations are hopelessly devalued compared to the consultants who promise a future which will never ever be realised.
So Jason Fried is right. ‘Work is not often very exciting, but it can absolutely be fulfilling. And you can be excited about that’.