Defining Innovation

Definitions of innovation abound. And while we all live with variety and even ambiguity, it helps when people trying  to innovate are on the same page about what it means. defines innovation as “something new or different introduced.” Peter Drucker described it as the effort to create purposeful, systematic change in an enterprise’s economic or social potential. President Obama’s Strategy for American Innovation defines it as “the process by which individuals and organizations generate new ideas and put them into practice.”

These and many good definitions share some common features.

  1. Doing something different. Is the organization trying to do something different to get a better result? Whatever innovation is, it surely isn’t repeating what you’ve done before and expecting a different outcome. There’s a different word for that. Organizations that try something different to get a better outcome are innovating.
  2. To invent or not invent? Invention is most certainly innovative, but one need not invent to innovate. Some of the best innovations are ideas transplanted across fields or disciplines and applied in new ways. Beg, borrow, steal ideas from anywhere they’ve worked before. Just give credit where credit is due.
  3. Technology. Technology is closely associated with innovation, but an organization can innovate its business model (customers, products and services, supply chain, etc.) and internal business processes. Innovation isn’t only about technology, even if technology is involved.
  4. Value. Adding value for a customer is, ultimately, why organizations innovate. Customers come in two flavors – primary and secondary or supporting. Primary customers of government agencies are citizens. Supporting customers might be those internal to an organization, interest groups, Congressional staff and members, etc. When an organization strives to do something different to produce more value for a customer, it’s innovating.
  5. The learning experience. This one is easily overlooked but is really central to innovation. Innovation is about doing something different to add value, and “different” requires change. Change requires learning – new understandings, knowledge, skills, capabilities, processes, activities. Organizations that create an opportunity to learn, in which managers and staff can figure out what to do different to get a better result – those organizations are innovating.

If your organization is talking about  innovation, you’ll know it’s walking the talk if one or more of these features is present.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

What if innovation were as simple as “testing an approach we haven’t tried and seeing what happens.” I like framing it within the realm of scientific inquiry and curiosity:

1. What’s our hypothesis?
2. What’s the small action we can take to test that assumption?
3. What happened?
4. What did we learn?
5. What do we with this fresh knowledge (double down, do different, don’t do)?

We probably overcomplicate innovation. It’s really all about a series of small tests that, in aggregate, can lead to significant, incremental change over time.

Lou Kerestesy

Thank you, Andrew. I think innovation can be that simple conceptually and, perhaps, operationally. There is more to it than that, but I don’t hear you saying we should over-simplify.

I really like the hypothesis metaphor because in science, the most important hypothesis-testing is of anomalies that don’t fit a theory. If we transfer that to management, it’s loaded with great possibilities about reconsidering customers, value, the value chain, etc. That inquiry is where much of the value exists in innovation, with the balance existing in what we decide to do differently with what we learn.

Followed to strictly, the main drawback would be that innovation isn’t exactly hypothesis verification or falsification. In an ironic way, hypothesis framing could constrain innovation. That’s compensated for in science by the numbers of scientists performing “normal science.” With innovation, organizations benefit by a broader conversation.

Still, any form of genuine inquiry is better than doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome!

Mark Hammer

“Innovating” means *making* new; i.e., “new-ifying” something. It needn’t require a change in the thing or the process itself, but can simply be a change in perspective or paradigm. Often that IS accompanied by a change in process or materials or organizational structure, but it doesn’t HAVE to be. A change in attitude, and inter-unit cooperation, as reflected in the opening remarks of a new leader is an innovation. A flat round thing lying on the ground might be a useful place to sit around, and maybe eat. But rotate it 90 degrees so that it’s upright and…hot damn! that thing ROLLS!

Lou Kerestesy

Very true, Mark. Theodore Levitt is quoted in, “ON Innovation” as saying that “Creativity is about thinking up new things. Innovation is about doing new things.” Commonly a thing is new in the adopted space, but is SOP in the place where it was created, or from which it was borrowed!