Defining innovation is not straightforward. 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. We therefore need a definition of innovation.
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), explain what we mean when we talk about embracing innovation and give you a good innovation definition.
It is important that we understand what innovation is and what is is not
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 and its implementation. In other words, innovation is the upgrade of an invention. Innovation is an invention with impact.
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. GoogleGlass for example, gave the public the ability to do something new. However it did not have much market impact. While it is an invention, it is no innovation. Opposed to that, Apple products are often great innovations. Jacob Morgan argues in the video below that “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 a product or service 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.
How do we take an idea, a product, an invention to the next step?
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, or 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.
Technology innovation for example is mostly based on years and years of systematic research. And even disruptive innovation, which often seems to come unexpected, is the result of a longer process. Creativity and innovation go hand in hand. But so do structure and innovation.
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 and is well summarized by Peter Druckers work "The 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:
Why do we innovate?
Understanding the user's perspective
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 target 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.
Another principle followed by great innovators is to not be afraid of making mistakes but to learn from them. This is important for the definition of innovation, as 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.
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.
Innovation and technology
Innovation itself is of course also changing and the technological development that we see today is driving this change. More and more machines will support us in our innovation strategies by giving us vast amounts of data, making sense of this data and storing sensitive data (e.g. via blockchain). Check out this article to learn more about the different technologies and how they impact us.
But also don't forget: No matter how progressive our technological development and the digital transformation is, what makes us human is also our ability to make moral judgements, our ability to empathize (which is key for user-focused innovation) and our ability to make mistakes and learn from them. And anyway, brainstorming together about new ideas is also just fun and no machine can replace this human interaction.
To sum up the innovation definition - innovation is an invention that is implemented in the market in order to generate an impact. In order to achieve such innovations, it is crucial to have a good understanding of why we innovate and what the perspective of the user is. Additionally we need to challenge our mindset to allow mistakes and openly embrace divergent ideas.