The Peanut Butter Pop-tart is Not an Innovation

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article about the use, overuse, and misuse of the word “innovation” in modern business, particularly with respect to consumer products. The number of instances of S&P 500 CEOs using the word in their earnings calls has doubled since 2007. Sadly, this misuse and overuse threatens to remove all meaning from the word. Witness the example offered in the article’s title: Kellogg’s new peanut butter Pop-Tart, which Kellogg executives tout as one of the most important innovations of 2013. Peanut butter filling instead of cherry or strawberry or chocolate, an innovation? Really?

Next time your boss starts droning on about innovation, it might be helpful to stop and analyze: Is she talking about building the next iPod or the next Pop-Tart? Does “innovate” mean just “stay competitive”? And if so, where is the innovation in that? …

In this context, to innovate can often mean falling short of the word’s Latin roots (of “new creation”). It’s more modest: simply keeping pace with rivals.

They used to call it competitiveness—a word fraught with the implication that others might win. Now it has been elevated to innovation, a more regal way to describe what business has always done: Adapt.

That’s a great point, and it’s a point that Schumpeter and Austrian economists have made for over a century — there are many different ways that firms adapt to the effects of rivalry in markets, and one of them is innovation. But, you might reply, Schumpeter emphasized the role of product differentiation in lessening the effects of rivalry, by making your new product less substitutable for the existing competitor products, and isn’t a peanut butter Pop-Tart an example of product differentiation? (Technically speaking, my answer to that question is no, but that may be me being pedantic, which is what I do …)

That’s where an old post from Roger Pielke Jr. is helpful:

In recent comments I was asked about what I mean when I use the term “innovation.”  I use the term as Peter Drucker did:

Innovation is change that creates a new dimension of performance.

Roger tweeted the link to that old post in response to the WSJ peanut butter Pop-Tart article today. Does Drucker’s definition help; is it “operationalizable”? Only if you define “sell more peanut butter Pop-Tarts” as the new dimension of performance!

3 thoughts on “The Peanut Butter Pop-tart is Not an Innovation

  1. Lynne, I hear what you are saying, and I sympathise since I generally dislike the misuse of language. However, I am not so certain much can or should be done about it.

    Trumpeting out that whatever thing you have done is an innovation is most likely wrong. But on the other hand, it is often only with hindsight that something is recognised as an innovation. And often, what is initially called an innovation is no longer recognised as such a few years, decades or centuries later.

    Then, probably a lot of innovation is not recognised at all. Sort of related to that, people make all sorts of changes and improvements. Over time, they accumulate. At some time t, they probably qualify as an innovation. I work in a software company with over 50 talented software developers. We are maybe not changing the world, but we improve things all the time.

    In case you are interested, here is a talk by Greg Groah Hartman about the development of the Linux kernel:

    What is so fascinating, from the Knowledge Problem™ point of view is that it is all organised in a network of trust. Thousands of people contribute and the pace of change is massive. The Linux kernel started off like Linus Torvalds’ hobby project and then it just grew.

    Although less important, Linus’ source control management tool “git” (named after his own attitude) might be more of an innovation at a point in time:

    We migrated our company to use this tool over the last year.

  2. Wonderful to hear. The MSG-laden umamiPopTart (that tastes like brined facon in biscuits) would be at least systematically welding open the manholes to a market of true Abaddon? At least one of those. So, knowing other choices to hew, is there a market basement R&D viability tool I should not neglect (after doublechecking Trader Joes’ and Whole Foods, then supplychains) to frob on increasing the lifetimes of Pop Tart Connoisseurs? (That targeting is so specific as to merely increase the effective lifetime I buy tarts in stores, with the 128937th most specious purchase instrument ever, of course.)

    This doesn’t increment Boston Cream Pie Pop Tarts’ rank as triathalon tweensies either, I suppose.

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