“Is it just me or is the word innovation being overused to point where it loses its meaning?” So tweeted the brilliant film-maker Tiffany Shlain (@tiffanyshlain) recently. What a coincidence. I had just finished reading a truly first-rate essay [link] on “Why has human progress ground to a halt?” by London-based science writer, Michael Hanlon [link].

“The notion that our 21st-century world is one of accelerating advances is so dominant that it seems churlish to challenge it,” he writes. Then, he quickly points out in extended detail how “innovation” today is a poor relative to times past. He talks about the “Golden Quarter,” the years between 1945-1971:

Just about everything that defines the modern world either came about, or had its seeds sown, during this time. The Pill. Electronics. Computers and the birth of the internet. Nuclear power. Television. Antibiotics. Space travel. Civil rights.

There is more. Feminism. Teenagers. The Green Revolution in agriculture. Decolonisation. Popular music. Mass aviation. The birth of the gay rights movement. Cheap, reliable and safe automobiles. High-speed trains. We put a man on the Moon, sent a probe to Mars, beat smallpox and discovered the double-spiral key of life. The Golden Quarter was a unique period of less than a single human generation, a time when innovation appeared to be running on a mix of dragster fuel and dilithium crystals.

Today, progress is defined almost entirely by consumer-driven, often banal improvements in information technology.

I can’t do justice to the force of Hanlon’s own words, but he’s basically saying that (as Ms. Shlain must also have meant) that when a new version of a cellular phone or computer software is announced, the producers may call it “innovative,” but it’s not. And that’s even more true for a new spin on dishwasher soap.

What's next?

In the words of those of us working on nextsensing, new versions of old ideas do not equal innovative thinking. Here’s how I would suggest you think about innovation from now on.

  • You are only as good as your last innovation. That means innovation can’t be the province of only a few people inside the firm. Properly, it must be everyone’s job and must never cease. That is a tall order for any organisation, but the alternative is (sooner-or-later) irrelevance.
  • Imagination trumps routine work. While it is indeed true that we are living in a golden age of technology, it is equally true that human imagination — the critical input for innovation — is having trouble keeping pace with technological advancements. Why? It is not a question of capacity (humans can be an endless supply of imagination and ingenuity). Rather, it’s more a question of time, attention and priorities. I am amazed at how leaders spend their time, what they pay attention to, and what their priorities are. Job #1 for leaders should be addressing one central question. How can I get the most out of the human imagination that works for (and with, and even around) this company? Clearly, some of that mental energy needs to focus on existing business priorities; yet, more and more human energy today needs to be directed to solving the bigger challenges of firms: getting to their next state of success.
  • Aspirations are a starting point for innovation, the desire to do something different than what you are doing today. Leaders who have an aspirational tone to their communications are the ones who usually unleash the collective energy of those around them. As much as John F. Kennedy’s visionary challenge to “put a man on the moon and bring him back safely” is cited in corporate speeches, when was the last time you heard its equivalent from someone in government, business, or education? Way too many organizations are driven by “double-digit earnings growth” and similar declarations. Let’s be frank, such aspirations (I guess we can call them that) are uninspiring for everyone but short-term, return-focused shareholders. And that is simply not enough in today┬┤s constantly morphing landscape to keep human inspiration sufficiently engaged.

In his article, Hanlon explores possible reasons why innovation has dried up across the planet. None of the reasons he puts forth seems to answer the question for him. He concludes with these words about the last few decades of “progress”:

But it could have been so much better. If the pace of change had continued, we could be living in a world where Alzheimer’s was treatable, where clean nuclear power had ended the threat of climate change, where the brilliance of genetics was used to bring the benefits of cheap and healthy food to the bottom billion, and where cancer really was on the back foot. Forget colonies on the Moon; if the Golden Quarter had become the Golden Century, the battery in your magic smartphone might even last more than a day.

There’s a lot of wisdom in his writing. Until the world’s leaders, on every level, start moving all of us beyond our myopic one-day, one-week, or one-quarter goals, maybe the word “innovation” will mean a whole lot more than it does right now.