Innovation jargon for cocktail parties – time to sound smart

Back in 1999, minty-fresh from my Sloan MBA and stint at the Boston Consulting Group, I thought I knew all there was to know about ‘survival’ business jargon.  This namely consisted of what I called the ‘big eight’ buzzwords:  The first four related to top-line growth, namely:  Strategy, Competitive Advantage, M&A (when you have no competitive advantage but you have money), and Business Planning, and the other four terms related to improving the bottom-line, namely:  Reengineering, Outsourcing, Lean Production, and the euphemistic Downsizing.

This was all you needed to sound smart with your friends and colleagues at cocktail parties…for example:

  • Jane:  “Hi Ricardo. Did you understand what Al ‘Buzzsaw’ Dunlap did down at Sunbeam? Were all those layoffs necessary?”
  • Me, Ricardo:  “Sure did Jane!  He really downsized that place didn’t he?  I’m sure he’s reengineering his way to a stronger competitive advantageous strategery before commissioning attractive M&A deals which can leverage synergies from his outsourcing schemes – That man is executing a solid business plan backed by his keen understanding of lean production principles that will change the world of appliances forever. ” .. and because I was at BCG, I’d throw in a parting…”And Al Buzzsaw will certainly plow the company’s cash cow earnings into his star businesses to avoid the dogs”.
  • Jane:  “Wow Ricardo!  You sound really smart for a PowerPoint Bitch..ehhr… I mean Management Consultant!”.
  • Me, Ricardo:  “Why my… thank you Jane – Let me tell you, it might look easy but I work really hard to keep up with the extensive business lingo of nowadays.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta get back to my chevrons and 2X2 matrices”.

I’m sure you can all relate.  Business life was easy back in the 90’s. The jargon was straightforward, something we could all understand in plain English and relate to the sophomoric moves that companies were making – selling generic stuff to their loyal customers, cutting costs to make quarterly earnings results and rolling up competitors to fight boredom.   Yes the Innovators Dilemma had been published in 1997, but no one understood it much less mentioned it back then – We were all business geniuses and most MBA’s were management consultants and investment bankers – masters of the powerpoint universe!

But then circa 2004, it hit us like the plague.  Seemingly overnight, everyone started using the word “Innovation”, every other damn sentence, I could swear.   All I was hearing was “bla, bla, ‘innovation’ this, bla, bla ‘Innovation’ that”.  Prosumers, Grandmas and Toddlers alike.. Where was this magical term when I was getting my MBA and charging a ‘fair price’ for my powerpoint advice?  The I-word came out of nowhere, a literary Genghis Khan, but from the West.  The I-word continues its devastating and overbearing march on business jargon, obliterating anything else in its path.  No one seems to have the patience to discuss the good old terms I had fought so hard to master in the 90’s like ‘downsizing’ or ‘reengineering’ anymore (not even Invention! What was wrong with poor ‘ol Invention?)– On the contrary, people look at me like I’m an Amish Luddite when I mention those things, much less ‘Cash Cow’.

So I had to bite the bullet and learn the Innovation jargon just like everyone else …here’s my suggested survival guide for cocktail parties; time to conquer the I-word ourselves!

Disruptive Innovation:
Hardly anyone really understands this one so don’t feel alone (and don’t try to over-explain it to anyone, lest you’ll get corrected by some Clayton Christensen groupie snob!)  I think Disruptive Innovation has something to do with the sad inevitability of desuetude.   Useful in understanding the rise and fall of industries, tough to put in practice at the individual company level.   If you must have an analogy… don’t try to steal the senior quarterback’s homecoming queen girlfriend when you’re the freshmen, pimple faced, four-eyed nerd – Wait until you have sold your big-data, Internet of Things company…and she’s divorced.

– So at a cocktail party:

Jane asks:  “What do you make of Disruptive Innovation”?
You answer:  “You don’t get out much, do you Jane? (and quickly change subjects)”

Design Thinking:
Yet another inexplicable term unless you were born Sir Jony Ive or work for IDEO.  I think it has something to do with thinking like a designer?   If so, then I guess this means getting a little soused before creating something…and using lots of post-it notes …and ethnography (treat customers like Gorillas in the wild) and brainstorming with your peers for sure.  You certainly know if you’ve ‘mindfully designed’ something if whoever is using, buying or envying your concoction thinks they understand it.

– Back at the cocktail party:

Another friend asks:  “What do you make of that lamp’s design”?
You answer:  “You obviously don’t get design thinking, otherwise you would have started your question with ‘How might  we..’ and started scribbling on your sleeve.  Now make yourself useful and go disrupt Jane’s conversation with that quarterback before his girlfriend slaps her”

Open Innovation:
Humm…always wondered about this one.  Is it a nicer way to say buy vs. make (M&A and licensing)?  I thought this had been around forever.. But OK – I get that we can now ‘Crowdsource’ and ‘Opensource’ the hell out of everything since information is free and thus ‘open’ beats ‘closed’ (networks beat hierarchies)

– You’re still drinking at the cocktail party:

Yet another friend asks:  “What do you think about starting a Crowdfunding campaign for a Crowddating peer2peer app”? –  He looks over where Jane, your design friend, quarterback and girlfriend seem to be getting along.
You answer:  “It will do a lot to reduce income inequality – but then again, what do I know.. Let’s use this phone app to poll what our friends think”

Lean Startups:
This one isn’t really part of the Innovation lingo barrage – not yet, you gotta give it some time!  Lean Innovation, The Lean Enterprise, The Lean Corporation, The Lean Intrapreneur, The Big Business Model Canvas – all titles of books probably being written as you read this.     The name is deceiving – it has nothing to do with being cheap.  This stuff basically begs the question “Do you want to be an artist or make money”?

-You’re finally getting ready to leave the cocktail party from hell:

Your startup-envious, frustrated intrapreneur friend asks:  “Should I quit my job and start my own company”?
You quixotically answer:  “If you do, don’t PLAN on it”

That’s pretty much it! – Disruptive Innovation, Design Thinking, Open Innovation and coming soon to a large company near you, Lean Startups for the Enterprise – Only four catchy terms to remember at your next cocktail party, or your next trip to Davos to brainstorm disruptive, thoughtfully designed, open and lean solutions to income inequality (on recyclable post-it notes) – beats having to remember the big 8! terms of the nineties now that I think about it.   Happy cocktails!



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