What is Innovation?

What Is Innovation?Everywhere you look, people are talking about innovation. There are conferences and gurus, workshops and webinars, apostles and practitioners.

But what is it, really? It’s hard to go about the practice of innovation when there is so much confusion about what it actually is. Some have supposed frameworks (i.e. discovery/invention/innovation), but to be honest, I don’t find them particularly helpful.

It seems obvious to me that a common sense definition of innovation is that it is a process of finding novel solutions to important problems. Unfortunately, in order to make innovation palatable to business organizations, many have tried to narrow the definition to make it more purpose driven. That’s getting it backwards, after all it’s businesses that need to adapt.

A Question Concerning Technology

Okay, let’s start from the beginning. Clearly, the reason that businesses are interested in innovation is that we are living in an increasingly technological world and, for any business to consistently earn a return, it needs to develop technology.

As Kevin Kelly points out in What Technology Wants, even the use of the word “technology” relatively new,  serious use of the term only dates back about half a century. So it’s not something we have a lot of experience with, like operations or accounting.

Martin Heidegger was the first person to seriously tackle the issue in his classic 1949 essay, The Question Concerning Technology, where he argues that technology both involves uncovering (i.e. bringing forth) and enframing (i.e. putting in context of a particular use).

The definition is extremely insightful and useful, not least because we tend to think of technology (including things like legal concepts and business processes) as something we create rather than uncover. As I pointed out in an earlier post about how technology evolves, we create technology by harnessing and then exploiting forces that were already there.

So, if we want to innovate by creating new technologies, we need to first discover things and then figure out how to put them to good use.

Penicillin vs. DNA

To see where the discussion of innovation often runs into trouble it’s helpful to look at two often cited discoveries: That of penicillin and the structure of DNA.

Penicillin was discovered by accident when Alexander Fleming left a petri dish open and came back to find his bacteria had died. He traced the phenomenon to a strange mold that we know know as the wonder drug, penicillin.

The structure of DNA, on the other hand, was no accident. In fact, many were searching for it, including such luminaries as Linus Pauling, the greatest chemist of the day. The answer, however, eluded everyone except for two relatively unknown researchers, James Watson and Francis Crick, who combined several novel approaches to solve the problem.

You can see the difference: Both are discoveries and technologies, but only one is the product of innovation. We learn little by studying the discovery of penicillin (except, of course to pay attention), but a great deal from how Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA. They were, in a very real sense, the first open innovators.


One popular way to frame the innovation process is to break it down into discovery (new knowledge), Invention (new technologies) and innovation (useful things like products and services). However, it doesn’t take much thinking to realize that this isn’t very useful because it confuses work products with work processes.

For example, both penicillin and the discovery of DNA were both the products of discovery (and eventually, by Heidegger’s definition, became technologies), but in one the process was accidental and the other the process was innovative, combining new techniques in chemistry, biology and physics in ways no one had thought of before.

And that is a very crucial point. It is absolutely senseless to argue what constitutes a commercial product or service (it is, after all, a matter of context rather than of quality), but finding novel solutions to important problems is a crucial component of modern business life.

The Innovation Management Matrix Revisited

To finish up, I’d like to return to an earlier discussion on Innovation Excellence about whether innovation needs a purpose by introducing a modified version of the Innovation Management Matrix I published in Harvard Business Review.

Innovation Matrix w examples

Each of the four quadrants represents an area of innovation in that each requires finding novel solutions to important problems and as well as the opportunity to create new products and services. (If you doubt the importance of quantum teleportation, see my earlier article on the next digital paradigm).

By arbitrarily determining that Netflix and the iPhone are innovations and the discovery of the structure of DNA and quantum teleportation are not, we would be unnecessarily limiting ourselves and therefore missing opportunities. After all, one man’s purpose is another man’s folly.

They do, however, require separate and distinct innovation processes and that’s where the discussion becomes important. In order to manage innovation effectively, you need to focus on one set of processes or your organization will become hopelessly muddled.

However, you will still need to gain some competence in other quadrants or you will miss opportunities (as Apple is doing now). Finding the right mix of research, partnering, mining the organization for disruptive ideas and engineering improvements is essential for every organization.

Note: Special thanks to Ralph Ohr for helping to hone some of my ideas on this topic.

image credit: janetnewenham.com

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Greg Satell is an internationally recognized authority on Digital Strategy and Innovation. He consults and speaks in the areas of digital innovation, innovation management, digital marketing and publishing, as well as offshore web and app development. His blog is Digital Tonto and you can follow him on Twitter.

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27 Responses to What is Innovation?

  1. Pingback: Innovation Excellence | What is Innovation? | S...

  2. Pingback: Innovation Excellence | What is Innovation? | D...

  3. moladi says:

    Thank you!!! What is Innovation? “Innovation” used too glibly and this article has put it in perspective – @moladi

  4. Pingback: Innovation Excellence | What is Innovation? | N...

  5. Pingback: What is Innovation? | Teamwork | Scoop.it

  6. Innovation– is the best skill/ art/ talent/ solution for any product or services to get the ultimate shape, by which every body will be benafitted,glade,admire & thankfull to innovative solution , innovation will have very littel criticism, with lot of appericiations…..innovation is having sprituality/ creative element

  7. Pingback: What is Innovation? - by Greg Satell, Innovatio...

  8. Pingback: Innovation Excellence | What is Innovation? | I...

  9. Here one simple definition of the research/innovation cycle: “Research” is the use of money to produce knowledge and “Innovation” is the use of this knowledge to produce more money.

  10. Pingback: Innovation Excellence | What is Innovation? | V...

  11. Peg Gillard says:

    Hi Greg,
    I found this fascinating. I am an educator and as I usually do, began applying this to education. I believe that innovation and invention are needed in order to “disrupt” our current process of education and invent a new one. I am also curious about how to teach the process or skills or idea of innovation to students. We have grown distant from that which I believe has taken some of the joy of learning away and made it a chore.

    Thank you for disrupting my thoughts and ideas this morning! Just how I like to start my days~with new things to consider!
    Peg Gillard ( @gracinginfinity)

  12. Braden Kelley says:

    Hello Greg,

    Because the term ‘innovation’ has become so large it is always important with every client, or for every company working independently to start their innovation journey by defining what the term ‘innovation’ means to them and by building a common language of innovation upon which to build their innovation vision, strategy and goals.

    My personal answer to the question of “What is innovation?” is:

    “Innovation transforms the useful seeds of invention into widely adopted solutions valued above every existing alternative.” – Braden Kelley

    All the best,


    • Thanks Braden. Although again I believe that the invention/innovation distinction is problematic.

      For instance. Gregor Mendel’s invention of genetics was truly innovative, but dead on arrival. In fact, it was lost for half a century. It eventually became widespread and his innovation “product” became a widely used technique.

      So by your definition, it wouldn’t be an innovation, but that just doesn’t seem right. It was clearly a new solution to an important problem. Did it become an innovation later? Or was it merely recognized as such. Would the nature of the activity change if it was adopted in a year?

      It would seem that, by your definition, innovation is not innovation without a marketing department.

      - Greg

  13. Mike Lippitz says:

    It is misleading to characterize Fleming’s discovery of penicillin as purely an “accident.” Deeply influenced by his experience as a doctor in WW1, he had been doing antibacterial research for years. Many others had observed penicillin’s properties before him, but his purpose-driven mindset allowed him to recognize its potential after the “accidental” creation in his lab.

  14. Kaythi Aung says:

    Hi Greg,

    Instead of important problems, in my opinion, innovation is novel solutions to any problems. All problems are important in someway somehow. Issac Newton’s finding on gravity looks coming from a simple interest of why it is falling, not a very serious problem to be targeted but it became a great discovery.


  15. Pingback: Innovation Excellence | Top 20 Innovation Articles – April 2013

  16. G. Menon says:

    ” Innovation” is one of the most ‘abused” words in corporate corridors today, that some truly innovative companies have banned the use of the term. Managers think that they can force their people to innovate, with a deadline to do so, under a highly burocratic system of working. Well said that it is the business that needs to adapt, and this article should help the clueless define what innovation is.

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