Dow Jones hasn’t updated its list of the top gobbledygook terms since 2008. But the world hasn’t changed all that much over the past few years. The business lexicon has changed even less. Buzzwords are like Pit Bulls with ankles: Once their jaws are clenched, it usually takes some pretty forceful methods of persuasion to get rid of them.

As its position on the Dow Jones list indicates, the biggest dog with the sharpest teeth, the strongest jaws, and the least meaning is innovate. It’s  impossible to tell what it means. But because its biggest mis-users are purveyors of technology, it’s easy to tell what it doesn’t mean:

Innovate doesn’t mean to make new. If you doubt that, name five IT innovations in the past five years. Okay, three. It doesn’t mean to make different. Aside from platforms (e.g., Microsoft vs. Java), what’s the difference between functional capabilities?

It doesn’t mean to break new ground. New ground is being broken only to bury buzzwords, abbreviations, and acronyms like straight-through processingend-to-end, SOA (service oriented architecture), SOP (service oriented programming), SOUP (simple object upload protocol), SODA (service oriented development application), and AHEM (acronyms halt evident meaning).

Given the rate at which we continue to drain meaning and substance from previously serviceable language, even as we generate more fake fog than a Kiss concert, we may as well revert to systems of glyphs, grunts, or guttural growls. Since we’re already not saying anything, at least we’ll save time:

Delbert: Hey, Will. What do you do?
Will: Gack!
Delbert: Yeah. That’s what everybody else does.

The fact that we’ve siphoned substance from innovate doesn’t mean companies can’t innovate. It just means innovation is better shown than talked about. What if, rather than trying to suggest innovation means better mousetraps and rounder wheels, companies thought creatively about the ways in which they interact with their constituents, deliver their products and services, and define their success? What if all of the resources and attention companies squander on purporting to be technologically innovative were directed toward improving customer satisfaction and increasing customer retention?

I don’t know the precise answer to those questions. But I do know this: Aside from seeing their customers differently, they’d view their technology very differently. Everything looks different once it’s transformed from an end to a means.

If companies achieved success on those terms — if they earned happy, long-term customers — they’d be … well … innovative. So, how do they get there?

Drop the gobbledygook. Get rid of the smoke and mirrors. Put the Pit Bull on a short leash. Opt for clear communication. Define things precisely. Make understanding the goal. We might end up hearing things like this:

Delbert: Hey, Will. What do you do?
Will: We help customers process more business more efficiently and less expensively.
Delbert: Uh oh. I think I understood you.

Now that’s innovative.

By NeedCokeNowOlga Tarkovskiy, via Wikimedia Commons