Some meetings go better than others, as we all know. Some time ago, I was presenting the results of a research project for a client, and was talking about the importance of the small, incremental ideas that come from people in organisations. One of the people in the meeting interrupted (not entirely politely, if I’m honest) to say ‘But that’s not innovation. That’s just continuous improvement’.

We’ve all been in meetings like this one, where the purpose of being there risks being derailed by one grumpy attendee and a problem of definition. It can feel like a colossal waste of everyone’s time but in fact, when you’re dealing with slightly nebulous concepts such as innovation, it’s an important discussion to have. Here’s why.

1. Defining your goals

For any organisation, it’s not enough to say ‘we want more innovation’ without defining what that actually means. In my interrupting friend’s mind, innovation meant radical, transformative changes that would shake up a whole organisation or industry, but what I was talking about was the more short-term, incremental type of change. If you ask your people to be more innovative without clarifying what it means to you and what the organisation needs, be warned: you’ll get what they think it means instead.

So be clear about what innovation means to your organisation by stating your desired outcomes, goals or purpose. For example, when Ford Smart Mobility set up Greenfield Labs, it defined its purpose as ‘bringing humanity to mobility’. By stating this from the outset, the Chairman made it clear that its remit was way beyond just creating smarter cars. Or you can be even more explicit – for Alain Sylvain, it’s only innovation if it has ‘a true impact on human life’. The point is not to get bogged down in arguing about whose definition is right, but to define your terms appropriately for what you’re trying to do.

2. Knowing where to stop

The problem Mr Sylvain describes is not unique to the term ‘innovation’. Every so often, a particular word, through no fault of its own, starts being used to mean all sorts of weird and wonderful things. Instead of being allowed to live a simple, happy life expressing a clearly defined concept, it will get pressed into service to fulfil uses for which it really wasn’t designed. Poor old ‘digital’ has been suffering from this since the 90s, when digital transformation first reared its ungainly head.

We have now reached the point where people can write sentences like ‘digital isn’t something you do, it’s something you are’ with a straight face. If you read that article, it contains some thoroughly sensible advice to organisations, much of which has very little to do with technology. And in fact it offers a definition of digital that shows just how far the scope of the word has been stretched: ‘applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations’. If you unpick this, what it boils down to is ‘using the best tools and methods currently available to you to provide things your customers want in the way they might want them now or in the future’, which really, is what forward-thinking, successful organisations have always done.

At this point you’re at risk of using digital as a synonym for ‘good’ or ‘modern’. But if digital now means all of these things, how do we talk about digital?

3. Buzzwords are more dangerous than you think

Before you dismiss this as so much pedantry, I have no problem with language evolving. But when a word is given cult status and unquestioningly accepted as a positive, it can create some negative effects.

If you’ve worked with me for longer than five minutes you’ll probably have heard me grumble about how Christensen’s original, and very specific, definition of disruptive innovation has been so widely misused that it now seems to mean any innovation that causes a slight ripple in an industry. There’s also an implicit idea that disruption is always a good thing – move fast and break things, as the saying goes. This can cause genuine problems: Uber co-opted the prevailing positive narrative about disruptive innovation to convince investors and the general public that their business model was something new and sustainable based on innovative technology and that it has a positive impact on the market. This long, but fascinating, takedown of the Uber story sheds light on how they used the language of innovation to tell a compelling story, to the point where a VC is reported as saying: “Uber is so obviously a good thing that you can measure how corrupt cities are by how hard they try to suppress it.” Similarly, the assumption that digital is always good can lead to problems of exclusion for those with accessibility issues or barriers such as poverty, particularly when moving public services such as benefits claims online.

Words matter, and so does how we use them. Being precise about what we mean by qualifying and defining terms isn’t just important from a language point of view – it can have a very real impact on the effectiveness of your innovation and change programmes. And most importantly of all, if you can’t define your terms clearly, it might mean that you’re not sure what you’re trying to achieve – and that often means you’re doomed to failure.