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What Does It Mean to Be Innovative?

by Tom Johnson on May 24, 2011
categories: creativity technical-writingwriting

Most Innovative BlogLast week while attending the STC Summit, I learned that MindTouch named my blog, I'd Rather Be Writing, the most innovative blog in technical communication. In their post, 2011 Technical Communication Innovation Award Winners, they write,

This honor is bestowed upon long-time technical documentation professional Tom Johnson for creating some of the best — and most innovative — original content about the field of technical communication (and related disciplines) on his ultra-popular blog, I'd Rather Be Writing.

Johnson creates top quality content. It's thoughtful, well-researched, consistent, and available in a variety of formats. Whether it's a podcast interview, a book review, a collaborative post, or a how-to article, Johnson does it right. He's open to new ideas, not afraid of change, and willing to challenge his readers, service providers, and the industry itself to think in new and innovative ways. Always a great read!

It's cool to receive an award about being innovative. Thanks MindTouch! Over the last several days I've been mulling over exactly what it means to be innovative.

Metrics for Innovation

It's interesting to compare MindTouch's list of innovators to their list of the most influential technical communicators, published last year. In their influencers list, they carefully spelled out their metrics for measuring influence:

Our Most Influential Blogger (MIB) formula consists of a weighted average across a range of metrics including Alexa, Klout Influence, Google Page Rank, Technorati Authority, and Twitter Followers.

When it comes to innovation, why isn't there a list of comparable metrics to measure the degree of innovation? Innovation is typically defined as providing new and useful ideas and approaches. But who decides what is new or useful? As such, innovation is harder to evaluate than influence.

The challenge is not without solutions, though. According to Katie Delahaye Paine in Measure What Matters, when it comes to social media, the metric that matters most is relationships. Measuring relationships seems just as tough as measuring innovation. Paine explains that one way you can measure relationships is by having a sample of your audience respond to some standard questions from the Grunig Relationship Survey. Your sample audience would answer whether they agree the following:

  • I am happy with this organization.
  • Whenever this organization makes an important decision, I know it will be concerned about people like me.
  • This organization can be relied on to keep its promises.
  • I believe that this organization takes the opinions of people like me into account when making decisions.
  • I feel very confident about this organization's skills. (p.58)

You could score their level of agreement on a scale from 1 to 5, and then use this score for establishing a metric for measuring relationships. (By the way, these questions are only a selection.)

Could we measure innovation by asking similar questions? Here are some questions that I could use to sample my audience.

  • Posts on I'd Rather Be Writing often explore ideas I hadn't considered before.
  • After reading I'd Rather Be Writing, it sometimes changes the way I think about what I do.
  • I look forward to posts from I'd Rather Be Writing because I know they will present a different spin on topics.
  • What I learn from I'd Rather Be Writing makes me a more effective technical communicator.
  • The ideas from I'd Rather Be Writing are useful and improve the way I do things.

I could survey a group of people about whether they agree or disagree with these statements, along with maybe 20 other blogs, and then compare the scores. That of course would be time consuming and costly, but it would provide a way to measure innovation.

What I Do That's Innovative

Whether or not I am actually more innovative in comparison to other technical communicators remains to be proven. However, I have tried a variety of things on my blog: podcasts, screencasts, WordPress training/consulting, videocasts, video interviews, audio interviews, series posts, curation-type posts, book reviews, guest posts, presentation recordings, sponsors posts, collaborative posts, and more.

These are merely formats, though. I like to think that my text posts are where the most innovation happens, because that's where I challenge assumptions. A good text post gets me thinking hard about a subject, and in writing about it, I often change how I think about it. This is the beauty of writing: it's a catalyst for thought. Almost every post that explores a topic with depth gets you thinking critically, challenging traditional ideas, uncovering assumptions, and looking from different perspectives.

Last year I wrote a post titled Being Contrarian, in which I spelled out the disagreeing mindset. A couple years ago I pointed out the difference between knowledge posts and creative posts. I favor posts where writers explore an idea rather than just explaining what they already know. Almost all the posts I enjoy writing are creative, contrarian posts. No doubt this is why some see my blog as innovative.

Future Directions: Story

Now that I've rambled on about innovation for a while, I want to outline my future directions. Although I'm interested in a lot of different topics (from findability to visual illustration to screencasting to content strategy), what moves me most is story. Story structures everything with meaning and relevance.

By story I don't mean that I want to tell more workplace stories with increasing transparency. Nor do the stories I tell even need to be anecdotal. At the heart of a story is a conflict that drives action. In an essay, the action is mental action, and the conflict is a question you're wrestling with. A recent post by Dinah Lenney gets to the core of what I mean. Lenney writes,

Here's a story about one of those times that made all the difference: I was in the middle of getting my MFA in a low residency program – also, I should add, in the throes of despair about my work – and I went to a reading at a gallery in Santa Monica. At some point in the evening I found myself standing in front of a painting, and beside me was one of my mentors, a fine writer named Jim Krusoe. “How's the writing?” Jim asked. Come to find out, talking in a gallery is a little like talking in a car; something about not having to look a person in the eye (and this is maybe a bit like writing, too) makes all kinds of confession possible. And so, when Jim asked, “How's the writing?,” I was honest with him. “What writing? Fuck writing,” I said. “I'm never writing anything again.” Then Jim asked, “What question are you trying to answer?” (Against Knowing)

Lenney goes on to explain that not knowing is what makes writing interesting. When you don't know, you're pursuing the answer to some question. You're wrestling with uncertainty about something. Along the exploration, you stumble across a discovery that is transformative. This basic structure that Lenney describes, wrestling with a question, is story -- at least in the nonfiction genre. It's the essay in the most literal sense of the word, as Montaigne used it, to "try" or "attempt."

That direction, wrestling with a question, attempting to find answers despite uncertainty, is what drives my writing. It's what prompts me to explore new directions. I think overall it's what makes me innovative.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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