Defining Innovation

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What is innovation?

The use of the term “innovation” has drastically increased in recent years, making it one of the buzzword of our decade. The overuse and generalization of the word and its application to different contexts have led to a loss of understanding and meaning. Different companies and individuals have developed their own ideas on innovations and how to achieve it. However, to measure a company or product by its “innovativeness” and to manage innovation, we need to have a widely understood definition of innovation.

In other words, definitions matter and since this is a platform all about innovation it is important that we understand what it is (and what it isn’t), and what we mean when we talk about embracing innovation.

Innovation ... or Invention?

Webster’s dictionary generically defines innovation as “a new idea, a novelty”, as “the introduction of something new”. In economic and management science, this definition is applied to the study of practical solutions to meet specific market and social needs.

The problem with defining innovation as a novelty is that it can lead us to confuse the concept of innovation with another important one: the one of invention. The main difference between the two is that while an invention is the creation of something that was previously not existing, innovation is the improvement of the invention, or the implementation of certain characteristics. In other words, innovation is the upgrade of an invention.

Invention vs. Innovation differentiation by Really Good Innovation

If we think about it, throughout the course of history, not every invention has been able to have a great impact on society and in the world. In a short video, Jacob Morgan gives the example of GoogleGlass as an invention, which gave the public the ability to do something but that did not have much market impact. On the contrary, he argues, Apple products are great innovations: “they were created, distributed and upscaled, allowing a lot of people to use them and experience them, and bringing a dramatic impact on how we work and/or live”.

For an invention to become a breakthrough and change lives, it must become an innovation. Following his logic, an invention becomes an innovation only when implemented and used on a large scale.“While an invention creates the concept and ability to do something, innovation is taking that ability and adding impact to it”. This concept can be summarized with the formula:

Innovation = Invention + Impact.

But how do we take an idea, a product, an invention to the next step, the one of innovation?

How do we impact society and create that social change?  To achieve innovation, it can be helpful to look at it not as something that occurs casually, as a result of multiple factors and variables that are out of our control, but rather as a discipline that can be learned and applied in different contexts.

In management science, innovation is studied as a process which implies different stages.

An extensive amount of work has been written on the process and discipline of innovation. Market leaders and successful entrepreneurs have developed their theories about the process of innovation, helping individuals recognize opportunities and create change.

Although the variety of approaches assume different forms and follow different steps or stages, certain principles seem to be common to all sorts of theories about innovation:

  1. Why do we innovate?
  2. Understanding the user's perspective
  3. Make mistakes
  4. Embrace divergence

Why do we innovate?

The first principle, can be summarized into understanding what innovation is and where the desire to innovate comes from. Innovation occurs when we are presented with a practical problem and when we have the desire to overcome that problem. As Guy Kawasaki argued in the Ted Talk “The art of innovation”, the first stage of innovation is to have a clear objective in mind which is not driven from the desire to make money and capitalize on something, but rather by the intention of making meaning and creating change in society.

Understanding the user's perspective

Another fundamental aspect of the process towards innovation is to empathize with the users and their problems. By questioning where the problems comes from, understanding the audience’ situations and needs, we can creatively imagine alternative ways and solution to overcome their issues. It is important to welcome the problems, question the roots of the problem and examine what can be done about it.

Make mistakes

Another principle followed by great innovators is to not be afraid of making mistakes but to learn from them. For progress and change to happen, we need to maintain a positive mindset and not get discourages from challenges. It is important to keep in mind that mistakes are fundamental steps towards progress and to look at them as opportunities to learn and evolve.

Embrace divergence

Last, innovation occurs when divergencies are embraced. Differences in opinions, ideas and perspectives should not be seen as obstacles and source of stress, but rather should be considered as fundamental resources. Everybody has a saying, and everybody has an expertise. When differences are used constructively, they can sustain the innovation process.