What is Innovation?

What is Innovation?People often think it’s weird when they hear that I study innovation – even people in very innovative jobs.  The biggest reason for this is mistaking invention for innovation.  If you do this, then studying innovation makes no sense at all – what can you learn about the flash of insight, the stroke of genius, etc.?

That’s why defining innovation is important – and why nearly everyone in working in the intellectual domain of innovation comes up with their own definition!  Here is the definition that I use:

Innovation is executing new ideas to create value.

Here is one way to picture it:

What is Innovation?

Thinking of it visually emphasises that all three parts of the definition.  Everyone gets the “new idea” part of it.  But it’s not enough to have a great idea, you also have to execute it.  And even after you’ve done that, you’re not finished.  It’s not innovation if you’re not creating value for people.

This is the foundation of the Innovation Value Chain idea.  John and I outline the research behind this concept in this paper – but  the main idea is this: if you don’t have all three elements in place, you don’t have innovation.

At an organisational level, this means that innovation is a process – the process of idea management.

What is Innovation?

To be an innovative organisation, you again need to be good at all three parts: generating great ideas, selecting & executing them, and getting them to spread.

There are three important points about defining innovation to consider:

1. Your definition needs to work for you. I’ve given two talks on innovation to scientific groups over the past few days, and one of the guys yesterday said “Oh, you could also think of that as science, engineering and commercialisation.”  In their context, yes you can.  This raises an important point that Jorge Barba made recently – whatever innovation definition you use, you need to own it and it needs to work in your context:

“The end result, is that if you are an employee and you pitch your idea as a “true innovation that challenges the established order”, it might get rejected because it means the company is taking on an untested and unproven idea.

In other words, if it doesn’t fit with the mental model of your leaders, it won’t get noticed.

Point: Whether you believe innovation is something new applied, an increment or whatever, the bottom line is your organization needs to come up with collective definition of what innovation means to you. Not your competitors or anyone else.”

2. Getting the idea to spread is often the missing component. The two science organisations that I was talking with both felt that this is where they are weakest. This is a problem because both of them are doing outstanding science – and their ideas needto be adopted more widely.There are a couple of ways to address this. Within an organisation, you need to get people committed to getting their ideas to spread. As Ian Frazer says, “there’s no point curing mice.” The second path is to make sure that your ideas are solving real needs. Braden Kelly pointed out last week that his innovation definition explicitly takes this into account:

Innovation transforms the useful seeds of invention into solutions valued above every existing alternative.

That valued about other choices bit is important – you can’t do this if you’re not meeting genuine needs.

3. Innovation by definition is uncertain. The last point to keep in mind is that for something to really be innovative, you can’t know in advance with certainty that it will work. Matt Edgar pointed me to a quote from Bruno Latour that captures this perfectly:

…a project is considered innovative if the number of actors is not known from the outset.

As always with Latour, the quote is both a bit loopy but also insightful. The key issue here for me is the emphasis here on uncertainty – without uncertainty right from the start, you’re not being innovative according to Latour.

4. The misunderstandings about innovation that I run into most frequently arise through thinking about innovation as being the same as having ideas. If you view it that way, then there’s nothing for me to study, and nothing for you to manage.

To be usable, a working definition of innovation must go beyond just having ideas. One way or another it also has to involve actually executing these ideas. And probably most importantly, it must involve creating value. If you don’t create value, then the idea will not spread.

So that’s why I say that innovation is executing new ideas to create value.

image credit: complicated business image from bigstock

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Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

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