Jumping the Shark: Innovation as Overused Plot Device


The other day I read a description of a company on their website.

“We do innovation.”

Um, all glaring grammatical issues aside, this posed a question for me: how does one doinnovation?

My guess is that this grammar error is not limited to this particular company, but is a common and growing misappropriation. Of course, you know how I feel about that kind of stuff, and I certainly don’t want it to become my catch phrase, but if everyone’s claiming to innovate, no one is.

In all honesty, what most are branding as innovation is actually just a shift in priorities. Or worse, a completely meaningless word used to sell crap.

Most things pegged as innovation are effectively just giving Malibu Stacy a new hat.

When companies feel the need to add the weak verb “do” to a word that should be a powerful action agent on its own, it seems to me that the way we currently talk about changing the world is jumping the shark.

As a film school dropout and literature degree holder, I’m highly qualified to speak to tropes and clichés. They’re everywhere in film, literature, and the world of business is absolutely teeming with them. I’ve suggested that leadership is becoming an actionless noun, and it seems innovation’s fate is much the same.

In creating a compelling story, the use of a plot device is a double-edged sword. The most gifted and creative minds can weave a great plot device into the mechanics of their story in a way that proves mastery. A lazy writer may prove himself a hack, sending cascades of groans through the audience.

Currently, most things pegged as innovation make me roll my eyes so hard my retinas could detach.

Here are just a few examples of how innovation can be an overused plot device in a world that needs real change.

Innovation as a Red Herring

A red herring is something that purposefully misleads and detracts from what is actually relevant or important. Great red herrings can leave you in awe, and meaningless ones are frustratingly sloppy.

We are sold constantly on the new and innovative. We are increasingly sold on the idea that what is branded as innovation is better than what is not (do a quick search to see how many books were published in the last year with the word innovation in the title.)

We are told that if we do not seek to innovate, we should not bother trying.

This attitude seems to me a massive distraction from actually doing. Sometimes we just need to do something, and the result need not be ground breaking.

And dude, your app that tells you when your beer is at peak chill is not innovation.

Innovation as a MacGuffin

A MacGuffin is a motivator or goal the protagonist seeks with little explanation and generally of little importance to the overall plot. While it plays heavily in the beginning, its importance wanes as the story unfolds. R2-D2 is one of our most beloved MacGuffin buddies – central to motivations at the beginning, and of no importance to the plot later on.

If you sit down with the desire to solve a specific problem, and you are able to solve that problem, that is wonderful. It could be a simple pain point like wanting to know when your beer is cold enough to drink. It could be about how to teach safe and responsible farming practices to people in developing countries.

Something tells me when we sit down with the goal of innovation in mind, the end of the story in most cases looks very different. Likely, the motivation wasn’t creating positive and powerful change at all.

Innovation as a Big Dumb Object

In science fiction, the big dumb object is a mysterious and usually wildly powerful object that causes wonder, excitement and often panic simply by existing.

‘Nuff said.

Innovation as Deus Ex Machina

Deus ex machine is the contrived intervention that helps abruptly resolve an otherwise unsolvable problem. Think every single one of Batman’s ridiculous gadgets, like Bat-Shark repellant or Anti-Penguin Pills, or in Lord Of The Rings, the fact that Gandalf is a FRICKING WIZARD WITH UNLIMITED POWERS.

Why do I get the feeling that there are people out there with so-called spray can rocket boots they call innovation? Or self-proclaimed Innovation Rockstars selling us on the idea that they can swoop in and be the change we desperately need to see?

Semantics of Hyperbole

For someone who loves language as much as I do, I sure do bitch about it a lot.

It’s truly the mind-numbing use of hyperbole that really grinds me into a fine, heartbroken dust (see what I did there?)

Innovation is no longer an action. It’s one of those “all talk” nouns, or even worse a purple-prosey adjective. It’s on the list of words you’d want customers to use to describe your brand. It’s exaggeration at its worst, especially for those who are just quietly changing the world little by little without a single drop of “doing innovation.”

In the case of Farm Radio International, an incredible organisation that uses the centuries old technology of radio to teach farmers in developing countries best practice in agriculture, what they are doing is literally changing thousands of lives every day. Radio, agriculture, and delivering education via distance are not new, innovative concepts. However, the result is one of the most powerful things I believe is happening on the planet right now.

Farm Radio International is changing the world. No hyperbole required.

One Last Word on Innovation

Change is a natural and necessary progression. Like changing your underwear.

Innovation is creating something entirely new. Like underwear that changes itself.

In our world, we need both. But don’t claim the latter if you can’t get your shit together to manage the daily task of the former.