"Stop innovating and finally do something useful!"

Companies need to innovate. That's for sure. At least, that has been the case for a few years now. Before this, everyone was happy if the company simply kept growing. Even if that was only achievable by parading old ideas as new ones! However, that time is over, for good. If we are to believe the hype, then every company urgently needs to innovate.

Innovation ensures that we can compete with neighbouring countries. And indeed, even with those with growth economies! But it is also our only way out of the crisis, and at the same time our only guarantee of a future of social security.

Today, innovation is for the economy, what penicillin was for medicine less than 100 years ago. A panacea. At least that is the conclusion you might come to if you can believe the abundance of blogs, tweets, articles, information evenings, subsidies and websites.

Well.

"Stop innovating and finally do something useful!" (shout) That's a relief.

It's probably clear. We are slightly less enthusiastic about what we have been told the collective innovation frenzy can yield in practice.

If there is any form of competition for the term 'innovation' in the hype club, then without doubt it must be the word 'creativity'. There is already as much 'buzz' around it: presentation techniques that promote creativity, imported from Japan, 'out-of-the-box' thinking with glitzy new tools, crazy brainstorms, ... These are just a few of the daily expanding series of opportunities that will hone the creative mind of entrepreneurs.

In quite a few cases the combination of both (innovation and creativity) turns out to be detrimental. The attention to innovation often transforms into an anxious quest for wild innovation. The company, or at least some products, need to be reinvented. Everything must be questioned. After all this brain exercise, it is not an option to come to the conclusion that there is nothing earth shattering that needs to be changed. Innovation is no longer just simply about renewing (or improving) but about 'reinventing'.

At the moment many organizations spend an excessive amount of time, resources and staff on new product and/or production options, without knowing exactly how useful they will be or how to reliably gauge the possible outlets with existing or new customers. Nonetheless, these innovations still manage to bring in a considerable part of the hard-earned cash from the old, familiar cash cows. And in the meantime virtually no one wonders how the cow is doing.

It sounds like a witticism, but unfortunately it's the reality. It really is unbelievable how many resources are channelled to projects that do not have a clear purpose and certainly do not have a specified roadmap.

Innovating is genuinely useful. But, to avoid any misunderstandings, let's give it a different name. Improvement does not sound sexy, but leaves nothing to the imagination as far as clarity goes. Yet it is mainly what our economy needs. Improving products and services with a proven reliability. Real innovation – i.e. improvement – is realized by searching for an answer to simple, obvious questions: what can we do to help reduce our customers costs, are there any possible interventions that would increase their efficiency, can we help to improve our customers' financial situation (e.g. by reducing the turnaround time for technical questions, so less customer credit is required), or are there any opportunities to optimize our customers' stock management? Very few people think about ways to increase the success ratio of their clients' quotes. Not at their customers, for their customers. If you find a good solution for that, your business will grow. 

The questions are so obvious that they do not seem to qualify as 'creative'. Perhaps not. Yet the best answers to these questions definitely demand a certain degree of creativity.

Once applied, these improvements will ensure sustained growth and a better market position. Even though it would be unlikely for an entrepreneur with a goal-oriented innovation to be invited as a keynote speaker or nominated for prestigious awards. And that is not even so bad. In our opinion it is far more dangerous that true innovation often does not fit into the framework of existing funding rules, which are based on a special model that has evolved from a dangerous combination of creativity and innovation.

Hence we need to modify our appeal for policy makers.

"In Heaven's name, please get our companies to stop innovating, and help them to do something useful." Developing creativity within the limitations of a clear objective and clearly defined conditions is infinitely more difficult than a wild brainstorm. But also infinitely more useful. And we call it: improvement. It is not a coincidence that 'growth' and 'improvement' are synonyms in certain contexts.