Snake Oil: “Transformation” kills “Innovation”


On the last day of 2008, Bruce Nussbaum in Business Week:

“Innovation” died in 2008…

He couldn’t start the new year more…well, wrong.

It reminds me of a client in London who approached me after a presentation I gave to his holding company at the dawn of the commercial WWW in 1998. He asked, “How can I make money on the Internet?” It was at once a breathtakingly open-ended question for a new platform so pregnant with myriad possibilities. And so demoralizingly foreclosing in its shortsightedness. After a minute of resignation, I remember answering, “The same way you make money on the telephone.”

A decade later in 2008, the WWW — the “Information Superhighway” to be more precise — is indeed dead. Like all good things, it’s been absorbed to become an essential part of commerce, and indeed our daily lives.

Did “‘Design’ die in 2006” so that “Design Thinking” Nussbaum has since been promoting could be born? Will “‘Transformation’ die in 2010” so that design bureaucracy can manufacture another buzzphrase, maybe “Reformation”? When the pendulum makes its way back, will it be “Restoration” in 2015?

Nussbaum either doesn’t quite understand the root causes of our “current” demise or is purposely distorting the meaning of “innovation” to make an otherwise improbable distinction. Take, for example, his characterization that “indeed, financial innovation was to large degree responsible for the economic trainwreck.”

The evidences of financial engineering which Nussbaum is apparently referring to, like complex derivates, lending without risk analysis, overly aggressive levering, opaque securitization, various Ponzi schemes, etc., are not instances of “innovation” as much as they remain either illegal or unethical.

How can anyone characterize as “innovation” originating arbitrary amounts of loans without verification or risk analysis simply because the originator will no longer be on the hook once an individual loan is bundled with other assets to be securitized and sold to others? Is avoidance of inevitable defaults on payment through securitization “innovation”? Only if you must come up with another buzzword for a new year to hang your hat on. “Transformation” indeed.

Who said this at the very end of 2005?

The design profession may be indulging in a navel-gazing exercise of immense proportions that is important to no one but designers. You folks are wasting a lot of time.

Yes, Nussbaum.

So by this time you might be wondering just what’s wrong with plain old “Design”? Why does it always need to be qualified with another buzzword of the year?

Innovation is a term too aligned with big business and corporations. But as a design advocate who fought for years to get designers to get over themselves and their obsession with framing their profession in terms of art, I can’t help but feel haplass in this debate. Just when victory is near, when design is finally being accepted for what it can do, people are denying its power, whining about the nomenclature and clutching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Yes, that too is from Nussbaum.

I could go on. Innovation or transformation, Design speaks for itself. It will in 2009, too.

8 thoughts on “Snake Oil: “Transformation” kills “Innovation”

  1. Ziad: “The key is monetizing those interactions.”

    Yes, when I grow up I too want to be able to monetize without money exchanging hands. That would be “transformation,” I suppose.

  2. Backing away, and then piling on again – Nussbaum tried to defend his weak argument with:

    My good friend Frank Comes, ex-Business Week and now at McKinsey, puts it this way: In the past, economic value was generated by transaction. Increasingly, economic value is generated through interactions. The key is monetizing those interactions. That’s the heart of an economy built on social media.

    I am too dumb or too blunt to bill at the hourly rate of a McKinsey consultant, but I would advise my client to:

    1. Sell their services
    2. “Monetizing those interactions” = sales transaction
    3. Hire someone dumber, blunter, and cheaper than McKinsey

  3. I think this is a very valid critique of his article. Although I’d say that there is somewhat of a point to what he says (misuse,overuse and a lack of understanding of the term) but overall, its just another buzzword creation effort.

  4. Ziad: “He does not define them specifically enough for me to understand the differences…”

    Therein lies the crux of the matter: he can’t. There’s no there, there. It’s a difference manufactured for polemics and promotion, not illumination.

    Sorry to be entering 2009 on a bit of a cynical and intolerant mood, but enough is enough. :-)

  5. Thanks, Kontra, and right on. We have sometimes disagreed where I feel you are trying too hard to apply a specific label, or differentiate things I find too common to apply different semantics. I still respected your opinion then, and here I believe we are on the same side.

    Nussbaum is making incredibly sloppy use of “memes” (I might use the label “term” or the term “label” :-)) like transformation and innovation. He does not define them specifically enough for me to understand the differences, nor does he support his points with any building of his evidence towards his conclusion. Sadly, I think his is another of many articles I see where the writer is clearly paid by traffic, so makes outrageous statements that draw vigourous debate.

    Put another way, he said “God is Dead, because Death and Mortality are different male-dominated economic train-wreck iPhone Google Nike Facebook”.

    I could re-write my resume to get more hits from the scanning/matching stage to job requirements, but it would look just as laughable when a human being set eyes on it.

    I went to Nussbaum’s article from your link, and found most of the feedback to fall into two groups: those who mocked his article, and those who agreed weakly, trying to draw naive readers to their consulting businesses / books / websites with equally tenuous links.

    Peter Jones – January 3, 2009 06:00 PM – made some wonderful comments on the Nussbaum article. It takes a very good talent to interest me when discussing corporate-speak. If I am not able to leave the room quickly, corporate-speak takes my mood from apathy to cynicism to trapped rage.

    Here’s to straight talk, honesty and plain speaking in 2009.

  6. Deanston: Nussbaum: “God is dead.”

    I thought for a moment that it’d go something like:

    God: “Who’s Nussbaum?” :-)

    I don’t want to sound mean, but this ceaseless re-re-re-defining of “design” is most irksome. Especially coming from self-appointed “thought leaders” who make a career of promoting “memes” like Nussbaum on “innovation” and “design thinking.” Especially when he betrays such a fundamental lack of understanding of the meaning of “innovation.”

  7. This reminds me of the joke –
    Nussbaum: “God is dead.”
    God: “Nussbaum is dead.”

    I think he confused schemers with designers. Here’s the difference: iPhone is designed by designers. All follow-up “touch” devices from others are slapped together by schemers. Just because “derivatives” overwhelms the scene, it does not mean there are no more new designs possible.

  8. Snake oil is a good analogy, because only a con man would characterize these recent financial shennanigans as “innovation.”

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