You’re a manager, an executive, a leader of men. Your company depends on you, and you know it. You also know that in order to succeed in today’s tough competitive climate, you need to do one thing before all others. You need to innovate. You know this because, well, all the magazines are telling you this. Oh, and all the books. And all those speakers at the last corporate event. It’s “Innovate or die!”, and you got the t-shirt to prove it (literally, they gave them out at the event). Sure, you have some suspicions about it all, particularly as the term seems to be everywhere, but since everyone else seems to be doing it, you do it too – you believe. And as any true believer, you go to your flock and you preach the gospel. The only problem? They don’t look very happy. You expect energy, purpose, passion. You get… tired looks. What happened?

Well, there is a problem in innovation-land, and the name of this problem is innovation fatigue. It is born out of the overuse of the word “innovation”, out of the relentlessness with which managers repeat it’s mantras, and out of the emptying out of meaning that this has caused. Innovation used to be a concept filled with meaning and joy, but its overuse (particularly) in the corporate world has created a situation where many employees see the word as either an empty cliché or as shorthand for “we’re going to pressure you for something new, without guidance, resources or support”. So those tired looks do mean something – they mean you need to become serious about making innovation meaningful again.

Innovation fatigue, as I use the term, is what happens when a group of people – e.g. a team in an organization – is subjected to vague innovation talk and badly explicated innovation projects to the point where the very reference to “innovation” triggers feelings of boredom and meaninglessness. It can emerge after a company runs a series of innovation projects that fail to generate anything particularly innovative, or from managers repeating pointless clichés like “think outside the box” or “let’s innovate our way out of this”. Regardless of how it emerges, it builds on managers and leaders propagating a vague and far too general perspective on innovation and thereby emptying it of meaning.

Although this happens in subtly different ways in different organizations, there are similarities and things to look out for. For the practicing manager afraid of creating innovation fatigue, or suspecting his organization may be suffering from it, here’s a checklist for some warning signs:

It all becomes a joke. Clichés and chestnuts are near and dear to many a manager’s heart, but they can also be deadly in an organizational setting. If you notice that talk of innovation makes people roll their eyes or snigger, this can mean that people no longer believe the talk about innovation, and have mentally fled the field when you’re trying to inspire them.

Advertisement

New initiatives are met with old solutions. Organizations often run too many innovation initiatives to dedicate themselves fully to any one of them, and thus try to replace quantity with quality. Employees get wise to this, and know that there’s no point putting in their best work – there’ll be another project roll-out soon. When your team pulls out a comfortable and predictable routine process at the very mention of a new innovation project, you know that fatigue may be setting in.

They beg you to stop. Yes, I know you’ve been taught that there is resistance to change, and you’re probably very keen to combat this. But resistance can also mean that people no longer see any meaning in the processes you propose, and the smart leader listens to such complaints and takes them seriously.

They’ve given up. The tired looks can also signal that people will no longer even try to engage with innovation. Instead, your employees may go through the motions, maybe even state some generalities about innovation, but in reality they’ve given up on even the dream of creating something transformative. So people will sit in on the meetings, even fake participation, but nothing comes out of it – because they see it all as a charade, and drop the pretense once the meeting is over.

And it may be you, yes you, who is causing this. You probably didn’t mean to, but innovation is hard, and easy to get wrong. Innovation fatigue is however a treatable affliction, where the first step towards healing is accepting the illness. Ask yourself: Am I making innovation a meaningful concept for us, or is it just a word I throw around? Am I getting people fired up, or just plain fatigued?