Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Etymology and Evolution: Ingredients For Innovation

Those who know me may find it strange (not ironic - that word is the subject of a future review) that I’m discussing the concept of innovation. According to some definitions of the word, I would be one of society’s least innovative people. I don’t own a cell phone, car, or anything that starts with an i. I’m not on Facebook, don’t subscribe to Netflix and still believe the foremost meaning of the word tablet describes the medium on which Moses inscribed the Ten Commandments. But meanings change; words are fluid and dynamic. Just like tablet has come to express multiple ideas, the concept of innovation has morphed and evolved too. So being a decidedly late adopter does not preclude me from being an innovator.

Common usage of the word innovation probably began with the industrial revolution. Concrete examples of innovation from this era have helped shape our world. Today, after five hundred reinventions of the wheel, innovation has come to imply a process of mental discovery as much as a tangible creation. Although invention is often used as a synonym for innovation, this can be is misleading. Inventions are typically concrete; innovations can refer to mental state as much as physical manifestation. In economic theory, the supply curve shifts to the right with innovation, implying that innovation is akin to efficiency.

But a close look at the word innovation reveals that there are many more ways to be innovative than owning the latest gadgets, inventing a new machine, or making a process more efficient. Innovation comes from the Latin word novus. Its English meaning is predictable: finding new methods and ideas, generating change. Exploring other current English words that have the same Latin root leads to a better understanding of what innovation has come to mean:

1. nova – star showing a sudden burst of brightness and then subsiding.
When we approach innovation, our initial energy does not have to be sustained. In fact, it’s natural that it will fade over time. Sometimes we avoid new projects since we know we can’t devote time and energy for an extended period, but life is made interesting by ‘sudden bursts’ of new ideas.

2. novel – a fictitious prose story of book length, typically about ordinary life.
Innovation doesn’t have to involve the extraordinary. When novels were first written in the 18th Century, they differed from Epics and Odysseys because common people were the protagonists. Innovation can be as simple as taking a different route to work or eating lunch with someone new. Every time we do something ‘novel’ we expose ourselves to the opportunity for a mini innovation.

3. novice – new convert; beginner.
We’re petrified of looking stupid. And if we innovate, we won’t be immediate experts; we’ll be starting at the beginning. This can be scary if we’re used to knowing what we’re doing, what to expect and what we’re up against.

Naturally, the word renovation has many of the same roots as innovation, with the exception of the prefix. “Re” means: again. When we renovate, we make new again. Renovations are typically planned, methodical procedures. However, the prefix “In” means: within, to enter, a sense of power. Innovation requires a powerful knowledge of the subject. It cannot be forced or premeditated, but it can be prepared for. If we want to be innovative in a certain area, we must know it intimately. Those eureka moments of insight require a certain mental state that is created with time and patience.

Since the Industrial Revolution, innovation has become a major business buzzword. At the accounting firm where I work, there’s a big push for innovation. In a highly regulated industry that attracts by-the-book people, this is a paradigm-shifting concept. Our corporate culture does not accept failure. Senior leadership wants to nurture innovation, but they aim to do that through innovation forums, incentive programs and even video games. They don’t seem to understand that innovation is a culture, not a onetime act you can incubate. If we want to be innovative, we have to not only accept failure, but expect it and be ready to repurpose the remnants of our failures into new concepts of success.

If we want to be innovative – who doesn’t? – we need to embrace the wider meaning of the word. From the grandiose to the granular, innovation can be big or small. We don’t need to be afraid of the word and bemoan how corporate and industrial sectors have appropriated it. Let’s take it back! No catchy name or complicated strategy required. All we need is a natural curiosity, a spontaneous burst of energy and an appreciation that we won’t be immediate experts. With this, we can find innovation in ordinary life.

 Mari-Beth Slade is a food and wine lover, wayward librarian and would-be philosopher. She works as a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax, but spends most days doing yoga poses at her desk or brainstorming discussion topics for her book club.

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