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How Do You Define "Innovation?"

The following is an excerpt from Keep Innovation Simple - Lead with Clarity and Focus in a World of Constant Change.

I get the sense that the business leaders and media pundits of the world aren’t all talking about the same thing when they say "innovation." And the products and services they keep churning out as their “innovations” make me question what they mean, too.

So, before embarking on a journey into the principles of innovation, we should probably establish what innovation is. Let’s start where any reasonable person starts when looking for a definition. The dictionary.

The Mirriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines innovation thusly:

Innovation (noun) in·no·va·tion \ˌi-nə-ˈvā-shən\

1: the introduction of something new

2: a new idea, method, or device; novelty

When I dug that definition up, I noticed a heading called “Rhymes with Innovation.” It cited such words as “abdication,” “aberration,” “abnegation,” and “abrogation,” all of which could be applied to whoever came up with this entirely unsatisfactory definition. Noah Webster should be turning over in his casket at that one.

Neither satisfying nor useful.

So I naturally went next to where we all go in the modern world when we need some knowledge. So what does the Google have to say? A search of “definition of innovation” returns about 250,000,000 results (in just 0.47 seconds – consider my mind blown). Readers, I love you and everything, but I just can’t go through all quarter-billion pages for you. If you really want to know what they all say, you’re just going to have to do that for yourselves.

Most of the satisfying definitions have a good deal of overlap, and vary only by some wordsmithing and nuance. Rather than try to come up with some super definition that trumps all others, I’m going to give you what I see as the definition of innovation in a picture – saving you a thousand words worth of reading.

Figure 8: The definition of innovation according to the Pi Innovation picture dictionary

Real innovation comes at the intersection of three elements: creativity, significance, and execution. Or call them “novelty,” “value,” and “reality.” Or use “new and different,” “problem solving,” and “implementation.” I suppose there are many ways to express the general meaning of those three circles. That is why I didn’t wordsmith a pithy little definition. Whatever words you choose to describe it, just remember that innovation occurs where those three things all come together.

If any one of those three elements is missing, it’s not innovation.

Creativity is the most recognized element of innovation for most people. Being creative and novel gives your product a competitive advantage. Even if it solves a problem for your customer in a way that they value, and you actually deliver it to them in the real world, without novelty, it’s nothing more than the status quo. It’s an existing commodity. It’s not an innovation.[1]

Significance means that it makes a positive difference for someone. If it doesn’t do something valuable for your customer (and, in turn, for you), it’s also not an innovation. You can come up with a whacky, unique idea and make it into reality, but if it doesn’t do something that people value, it’s just a useless trinket, like a pet rock.[2] Okay, I’ll concede that when they first came out, pet rocks were valued as gag gifts, but that ran its course quickly. Humankind has matured enough since then to recognize their utter lack of value. At least most of us have.

Finally, without the element of execution in the real world, in a way that people can actually experience the value provided, you’ve got nothing but a unicorn. It may be a fantastical, magical, wonderful concept, with the power to save the world, but if you can’t make it into something that actually provides real value to your customers, it’s just a fantasy. It is not an innovation.[3]

Innovation must have creativity, significance, and execution. All three.

Note also, in this definition, what innovation is not: it’s not just about being high-tech. It’s not just about generating patents. It’s not just about being connected to the interweb. It’s not just about coming up with the radical breakthrough that will change the world.

It’s also not just about products that go up for sale. Business models can be innovations. The iPod was not just a gadget. It was a rethinking of how media can be distributed and enjoyed.

It’s not just about things you sell to people outside your organization. Internal processes and systems can (and should!) be innovations. Finding a new and more efficient means of sharing information than changing the cover sheets on a TPS report (stapled with a red Swingline® stapler, of course) meets the criteria necessary for innovation.[4]

There are many ways to innovate. We can intuitively sense that a new-to-the-world product employing a new and unique technology and delivering market-changing value (like the world wide web) is different than an extension to an existing product set employing existing technology and adding only incremental value to the market (like adding rutabaga-kumquat to a line of iced tea flavors). Some innovations will land you a guest spot on the Tonight Show. Most will not. But they can all add value to the world, and that’s not a bad thing.



[1] Not surprisingly, research demonstrates that novelty is indeed critically important to new product success and helps drive competitive advantage. See, for example, Subin Im, Mitzi M. Montoya, and John P. Workman Jr., “Antecedents and Consequences of Creativity in Product Innovation Teams,” Journal of Product Innovation Management, January 2013.

[2] In fact, as Im, Montoya, and Workman point out: “New ideas may be perceived as simply weird or bizarre by the target audience if they are novel or unique but carry no meaning (i.e., the extent to which outputs are perceived as appropriate and useful by the targeted audience) …novelty in and of itself may imply an unreliable or untrustworthy product.” Thus, pet rocks. Note: I slightly rearranged the words to flow better here, but they are all in the paper and consistent with its meaning.

[3] Okay, so I don’t have academic research saying that new products that are never executed don’t succeed. I suppose they don’t fail, either. I’m just going to take it as a statement of the obvious that if it doesn’t exist, it can’t do much. If you can prove me wrong on that, let me know.

[4] Thanks to the brilliant movie Office Space for illustrating the potential value of business process innovation so poignantly.

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