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Reclaiming Buzzwords: Richard DeVaul Wants to Demystify Innovation

At one point or another in your life, you have probably experienced the psychological phenomenon known as semantic satiation. A word repeated over and over again suddenly loses all of its meaning and becomes nothing more than meaningless sounds. This is what has happened to the word "innovation" over the course of the past decade. It is the buzzword to end all buzzwords, the go-to response for everybody from entrepreneurs to politicians who are asked "what is the secret to success?" And just as with semantic satiation, the overuse and generalization of the word has led to a loss of what it means when we say we need more innovation. Instead, it is often used as an avoidant catch-all, to the point that you will often hear the redundant phrase, "to be innovative, we have to encourage innovation."

Richard DeVaul wants this to change. DeVaul is an M.S. and Ph.D. graduate of MIT Media Lab, during which time he worked to develop a novel programming language for computational graphic design and did his doctoral dissertation on a real-time wearable memory support system. Since then he has been issued over 70 U.S. patents, in addition to starting and leading projects that created billions of dollars of enterprise value at X Development (formerly Google X) and in the venture-backed startup world. Within his two decades of hands-on engineering, operational and executive experience DeVaul has become something of an innovation professional, with his work spanning domains from academic to corporate, technical subject areas from consumer electronics, to high altitude ballooning and organizational structures from small teams and startups, to Fortune 100 companies. He is seeking to help people understand innovation leadership and culture, taking the meaningless buzz out of the buzzword, and turning it into a tool that can be used to create real value for businesses and society.

In his experience as an executive innovation consultant, DeVaul has found that the CEOs and business leaders who enlist him to help set up innovation labs, fix broken organizational processes around innovation or build innovation teams, often lack a solid conceptual understanding of the term itself. They identify innovation as equating with creation - if you make something new you're innovating. DeVaul challenges that in looking at the long history of innovation, one can see that rather than creation, innovation is about destruction. While this may seem counterintuitive, he argues that it is only through destroying the existing order of things that true innovation occurs, which is also what makes it so difficult to achieve. Established players in any industry are going to naturally trend away from innovation as it means destroying the very foundation they were built upon, and even developing the new product or service yourself, does not mean that you will be safe from the industry disrupting changes that will take place because of it. DeVaul points to Kodak, who actually invented the first self-contained digital camera in 1975. However, by 2012 the film photography company that was once the leader in their industry had declared bankruptcy, having failed to compete in the digital photography world they helped to create.

Rather than deterring people away from innovation, DeVaul hopes that by understanding what it really means, business leaders and their companies can be empowered to use this knowledge to build the right innovation strategy for their organization. No matter what, somebody will always be innovating, seeking to destroy the status quo and change an industry, but DeVaul puts forward that there are three directions a business can take in the face of this inevitable change: driving it, reacting to it or being overwhelmed by it. While the first two approaches both have their advantages and disadvantages, they are rooted in the development of a strategy and both can therefore be utilized effectively if they are the right choice for your business. It is those who fail to formulate a strategy that will be left in the dust trail of those who have.

Incrementalism Revalued

As DeVaul explained, innovation is a world-rocking occurrence in which something radically new destroys the old ways, and it would be naive to think that an organization can do so without experiencing radical changes themselves. Organizational structures must be reformulated, along with sacrificing existing investments or opportunities in order to fully get behind the innovation. Anybody who thinks it is possible to receive the positive benefits of change without the potential complications or the costs of radical disruption does not want innovation as it is truly defined. Instead they want incrementalism, a concept that lacks the sexiness of innovation but still has the potential to create value within a business while avoiding some of the inherent risks that come with innovation.

Because innovation has been heralded by both the academic and business world as the key to the future, it's easy to see why it would become a word that is synonymous with success. However, DeVaul asserts that much of the time, the "innovation" that companies or organizations want and would benefit the most from isn't really innovation at all, rather it is the incremental improvement of something that already exists. He argues that in markets or industries that are stable it is actually the more rational thing for most organizations to focus on, allowing them to make steady improvements over time without the radical changes and risks that come with it.

Innovation Drivers: Offensive vs. Defensive

Sometimes the market can be stable for decades, meaning a business whose strategy lies in incrementalism can also operate for decades making small changes that improve the value of the business while sticking to the status quo. However, as Richard DeVaul has pointed out, just because one business is not innovating does not mean that nobody is, and inevitably the market will be disrupted. Again though, this does not mean that charging ahead with innovation is the best and only solution. Innovation in its truest sense is a speculative bet on something unproven, and in order for it to destroy the existing order of things the cost must first be heavily placed on a business, whether that be through losing processes, channels, money and even time that could have been devoted to something else. If a business wishes to approach innovation offensively, its leaders must fully believe that the potential upside drastically outweighs the cost of failure, and prepare to ensure that the cost of potential failure will be manageable. When one thinks of innovation, this offensive approach is what typically comes to mind, but defensive innovation can also bring value when it is thoughtful and strategic. DeVaul points to the example of Microsoft, who neither invented the internet nor created the first popular web browser. In fact, the first browser they introduced was received poorly and was unpopular in comparison to Netscape and Mosaic at the time. However, they successfully reacted to the change and were eventually able to become the internet browser of choice for the better part of a decade.

Innovation Strategy: Considered vs. Directionless

Whether defensive or offensive, in order for a business to properly execute innovation it must be based in strategy. DeVaul believes that too often innovation is described as an unbridled good - something that we should desire for its own sake, but this can result in false motivations that inevitably hurt a business more than it helps. The fact of the matter is, there are a number of important factors that must be considered and planned for before moving full speed ahead in innovation. DeVaul highlights this by looking at Bulova, now a little-known luxury watch brand, but at one time the pre-eminent maker of high-precision mechanical timekeepers and a global brand on par with Apple. Bulova was more than a watch company; they were a media innovator, having run some of the first radio advertisements in the 1920s and the world's very first television commercial in 1941. Bulova had a strong PR game, providing timekeeping for the NHL and NBA, and sent their watch to the moon with the Apollo 15 mission. Unfortunately, Bulova was also a technical innovator; what destroyed Bulova as a global brand was their own invention, the Acutron (introduced in 1960) which was the first mass-market electric watch. The Acutron used an innovative tuning fork resonator circuit, which was the direct precursor to the cheaper Astron, the first quartz watch (introduced by Seiko in 1969) that started the quartz revolution and upended the entire mechanical watch industry. It was clear that Bulova and its leaders never truly considered the implications of introducing electronic watches would have on their core business. Hindsight is 20/20 though, and the implications of real innovation can be difficult to foresee, which is why DeVaul recommends treating any change that is non-incremental as a potentially disruptive element: having the ability to be beneficial or dangerous.

For DeVaul, innovation doesn't have to be the frequently misunderstood topic it is currently. The first step to achieving innovation is understanding it in its true definition: not any form of new product or technology, but a disruptive change that puts an industry on its head. The next is determining which approach and strategies work best in the face of the inevitably that is innovation - and this can change over time. While incrementalism may be the best course of action in the present, it is important to remain vigilant to the ebbs and flows of industries to determine when to be defensive and when the opportunity is ripe to offensively innovate yourself.

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