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Monday, July 05, 2010

Business Innovation

It's a word that American businesses love to toss about. We think it's cool. It's lauded as a virtue - always assuming that it denotes something good. I'm talking about innovation.

Ironically, most dictionaries don't define it that way. They simply say that innovation is about "something new and different." How is it then that we Americans, especially in business, automatically assume that "new and different" is always better or even always worthwhile.

Does anyone remember Jim Jones and the Kool-Aid massacre that he engineered years ago? It was new and different. Nobody in their right mind would say it was better. Remember the Ford Pinto - that turned out to be an exploding death trap? It too was new and different. Then there was the Concorde - a super fast airplane - that proved to be too expensive to be practical.

You see, the point is, innovation does not always mean value or even progress. But it seems to mean something. It seems to be paramount to our society. For some reason, we've concluded that new and different is the same as better and is indicative of progress. We assume that progress will change things - and that the change will be better. When the change isn't better - such as when a nuclear power plant melts down (i.e., Chernobyl), we write that off to an accident.

So it would seem that our society tends to believe change is always better ... that new and different is always better. And when it isn't? Well then, we write that off as an aberration ... and exception to the standard. Do you suppose this is really a wise way to approach life in general?

Fast Company magazine, which I've always enjoyed and found to be a great magazine, just did a story on the 100 Most Creative People in Business. (Check it out at Of course, there's another word that we seem to take for granted: creative.

Now most dictionaries define creative as being "imaginative, resulting from originality of thought." They sometimes mention that it can be productive (which we'll conclude has a definite positive connotation). But then they conclude that it could also have used exaggerated or skewed data or information. That would definitely not be good!

As I scroll through the Fast Company nominees, what all one hundred of them seem to have in common is the fact that they're observed to be creating something or doing something of value. Now the value itself may benefit only themselves --- or it could benefit the whole world. Most fascinating is the fact that they gave the first slot to Lady Gaga ( She's considered to be the single most creative individual in business today.

Lady Gaga is definitely a study in modern social norms. Time magazine lists her among the 100 most influential people in the world. Forbes magazine lists her 4th on its list of the 100 most powerful and influential celebrities in the world. Folks, these are credible business magazines. And they're citing Lady Gaga using terms such as "most powerful" and "most influential." Is this right? Is that what power and influence are supposed to look like in the world?

Don't get me wrong. Several of Fast Company's top picks for the most creative people in business today are certainly doing worthwhile things. Many are creating products that make life better, giving good service, solving big problems and even enriching their shareholders. Those are all good things to be doing. But not all of them are doing that. Some are simply, as in Lady Gaga's case, providing entertainment. Granted, they're getting rich doing it. But is that really something to be celebrated?

What kind of people are we admiring in our society today? I've heard people mention Angelina Jolie as someone they admire. She's adopted a bunch of kids and been a spokesperson for big humanitarian works. Those are good and virtuous things to do. Then again, she slept with another woman's husband, has given birth to kids out of wedlock, and is currently living without the benefit of marriage. And she's incredibly rich.

What is it that we admire so much about her? After all, there are plenty of people who've adopted more kids than Angelina Jolie! And they probably tend to lead more virtuous lives - with a lot less money. Why don't we admire and celebrate those people?

I'm convinced that there is something about the notion of celebrity that has a grip on American culture today. And it's not a good grip. We seem to be blind to the truth of any situation, depending on the celebrity. We're brutal with our politicians - but our celebrities can get away with pretty much anything. In fact the best way for a politician to redeem themselves after a fall would be to morph into a celebrity. Then we'd all love 'em!

Isn't it time that we start looking for the fabric of people. Isn't it time we stop being impressed by what they do or what they have ... and start being more taken with who they are and how they love? What if, for example, Time magazine came out with a list of the 100 Most Loving People of the Year? What if Fast Company came out with a list of the 100 Most Generous People of the Year?

When we celebrate people in our society, shouldn't we be celebrating the ones that truly make the world a better place? Shouldn't we be celebrating the accomplishments that make life more worthwhile overall? And shouldn't we be celebrating the people who best reflect the love of God to the world? Now that would be creative!

And when we celebrate innovation in business (or elsewhere), shouldn't we be celebrating the things that truly make the world a better place? Shouldn't we be limiting our celebration of new and different to only when it is also better? Wouldn't it make sense to put a requirement on innovation that it either solves problems, creates opportunities, creates new value or gives people access to value that they couldn't access otherwise? Now that would be new and different!

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