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Innovate or die?

The well worn phrase has Billy MacInnes wondering if it is still as popular as it once was in the channel

“Innovate or die.” You have to admit, that sounds pretty drastic. Scary, even. If it was Who MBA instead of Dr Who, and the Daleks were consultants or analysts instead of an extraterrestrial race of mutants bent on conquering the universe and exterminating inferior races, they’d be shouting “innovate or die, innovate or die” instead of “Exterminate! Exterminate!.”

Even without the Daleks, the fact is that lots of people love using it. A search on google for the phrase “innovate or die” returned nearly 74,000 results (although in the interests of fairness, I should point out that “Exterminate! Exterminate!” had 79,000 results, despite the fact there are far fewer Daleks in our universe than consultants/analysts/commentators).

Anyway, the fact is a lot of people have been happy to tell other people that they need to “innovate or die”. You can see why. It sounds definitive, clear, unambiguous. And it’s easy to remember and to repeat.

But are things as binary as it implies? We might all be agreed that we know what “or die” means in this context, as “in cease to trade/go out of business”, but what do they mean when they say “innovate”? It all depends on context, doesn’t it? It could be absolutely anything. It’s a very wide word that allows for a lot of latitude in interpretation.

We could ask the dictionary. According to the dictionary on my iMac, innovate means “make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products”. That’s quite clear, I suppose, unless you ask what the nature of those changes has to be to qualify as innovative.

Also, do they need to be your changes to count as innovation? That is, do they need to be unique to your organisation? Otherwise, if you’re introducing new methods, ideas or products that are already being used by other businesses, are you innovating, or are you copying? Somehow, “copy or die” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

The suspicion remains that often when people are being told to “innovate or die”, they’re usually being told to do very similar things to other companies that have successfully transformed themselves. Sometimes they’re being told to use a particular product or technology, frequently being touted by the person exhorting them to “innovate” when what they really mean is “buy this” or “implement this”.

It’s also worth noting that making a change to something established by introducing new methods, ideas or products does not guarantee that a company won’t go out of business. There are many examples of companies that have implemented lots of changes to their business and still failed. In other words, you can “innovate and die”. There’s obviously a bit of truth in that statement because, surprisingly, it returns 28,100 results on google.

Maybe, to be more accurate, we should change it to “innovate and/or** die” (**delete as applicable).

This was last published in February 2018

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