Use Your Words

By Jesse Ciccone

Language is behavior.

This mantra was preached at me and my colleagues constantly by a former boss (and current mentor in absentia) from my days in San Francisco.

One of his favorite ways to illustrate it was to insist that we refer not to “my clients”, but rather “the clients I serve on behalf of the agency”.

At the time, I thought he was just being persnickety (OK, the specific thought I had was “stop being such a pain in the a**!!!”). But as I’ve gained experience and maturity – both personal and professional – I’ve come to realize that he was right. Language truly is behavior.

(That said, to this day I don’t understand why the gang in Los Angeles had to be “the office down the hall” and not “the LA office”. That one will likely always evade me.)

So, why am I bringing this up? In a word, innovation.

It is hardly breaking new ground to suggest that the word innovation is so overused it has become virtually meaningless. (It is and it has.)

But I wonder if innovation is actually what a lot of companies even mean when they use the word.

Like statistics, you can find a definition of a word to fit almost any argument, but a definition for innovation that reasonably represents what people typically mean is “ introducing something new; invention; advanced or ahead of the times”.

Innovation certainly isn’t bad, but it isn’t inherently valuable, if it is only for its own sake.

I wonder why more companies aren’t talking about ingenuity, or “the ability to solve difficult problems”. (You’ll find many other definitions – many of which sound similar to those for innovation – but the distinction is that they all explicitly or implicitly talk about solving problems.)

Put another way, pursuing innovation often leads to solutions in search of problems. Whereas ingenuity is applying creativity and inventiveness to solve real problems that currently exist.

Even putting my disdain for buzzwords aside, I’d like to see more companies use ingenuity as a rallying cry to replace or complement the pursuit of innovation.

After all, language is behavior.