Many business blogs will pose the question “what is innovation?” and then descend into an erudite semantic fog. Let’s just answer the question and do so in a way that points forward to responsibilities and actions.
First, a general definition: innovation is anything “new and useful.” All three words are essential, and no more. Thus, a clever invention that never helps or delights anyone isn’t innovation, nor is a very useful ripoff of an old product. “New and useful” can apply to processes or services as well as physical products, of course.
Now let’s get more specific and in a way that points to action. An expanded definition (perfectly compatible with “new and useful”) is that innovation consists of the “three I’s”, namely inspiration, invention, and implementation, in that order, and again with all three essential before we can say we are innovative. Thomas Edison’s light bulb wonderfully illustrates all three.
Electrically powered hot filament light bulbs predated Edison’s invention by at least 40 years. Nearly every separate technical aspect was known before Edison began working on the bulb in 1878. We can surmise that his inspiration consisted of the confidence that a diligent attack on the multiple flaws of previous designs could produce something to sell to a huge latent demand.
Invention consists of that first proof-of-principle, that first prototype that suffices to convince others to commit to the greater tasks of implementation ahead. In Edison’s case, the invention consisted of a series of hand-made bulbs that lasted 13, 40, and then 1,200 hours before burning out.
Notably, even at this first physical stage the invention is really a system more than a single thing: in our example that meant filament materials, a state-of-the-art vacuum pump, and Menlo Park, a team and process for innovation.
Implementation is the difficult, lengthy, and expensive part of innovation. It is the reduction to practice and scale of the invention, and usually includes manufacturing, distribution, marketing, and sales. It involves many more people, more money, and more tangible risk than inspiration or invention – but without implementation, nothing matters.
Where Edison differed from his predecessors, and why he’s generally credited with the innovation, is that he conceived and built an entire power generation and distribution infrastructure to support the bulb: the Pearl Street generating station began selling electricity to New York customers in 1882. Here is Thomas Hughes, one of Edison’s biographers:
“The lamp was a small component in his system of electric lighting, and no more critical to its effective functioning than the Edison Jumbo generator, the Edison main and feeder, and the parallel-distribution system. Other inventors with generators and incandescent lamps, and with comparable ingenuity and excellence, have long been forgotten because their creators did not preside over their introduction in a system of lighting.”
So that’s what innovation is: something new and useful, born of inspiration, invention, and finally implementation. Perhaps the most important aspect of this definition is that it helps us avoid the happy delusion that any of the following, by themselves, will make our organizations innovative:
- making “innovation” a company value or goal
- hiring innovation consultants
- setting up an idea generation system
- putting up an outside website to get ideas from customers
All these may be good things to do. They might be necessary, they are certainly not sufficient without the three I’s backing up their outcomes. We all know Edison’s remark that genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. Here’s another quote from the master to remind us about those icky, complex tasks of invention and implementation:
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
Dr. Robin Spencer recently retired as Senior Research Fellow at Pfizer Inc. where he created and ran an internal idea management system and launched more than 200 challenges, an average of one a week. He is now the director of research at Imaginatik, an innovation management consultancy and software provider in Boston.