What is innovation? 15 experts share their innovation definition

  • We asked 15 innovation experts what their innovation definition was

What is innovation? 15 experts share their innovation definition

I spoke to 15 of the world’s leading innovation experts to get their definition of “innovation”. The variety in their responses may surprise you.

Content

Introduction

Innovation is truly a confusing buzzword which many people love to hate.

Every business leader agrees that it is important. But nobody can quite seem to agree on what it actually is or what it means.

If you ask Google for an innovation definition, it is less than helpful, coming up with over 300 million results with thousands of definitions. Its own definition is pretty much useless: “the action or process of innovating”. Using the traditional sources for a definition such as the Oxford dictionary also doesn’t help much, with their answer being “Make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products”

So I contacted a selection of my fellow innovation experts to see how they talk about innovation with their clients, and compiled the results for you here. I asked them all:

  1. What is your definition of “innovation”?
  2. What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation?
  3. What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation?

The results surprised me. Even amongst the group of industry insiders here who teach and author books on innovation methodologies, case studies and thought leadership, there was a huge variety between the responses. So in the last section of this article, I’ve analysed what everyone said to find the most common themes, to try and see if it is possible to use the common threads to determine the most effective definition you can use.

Let’s get started.

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Nick Skillicorn

Turning an idea into a solution that adds value from a customer’s perspective

What is your definition of “innovation”: Turning an idea into a solution that adds value from a customer’s perspective

What mistake do companies often make when they talk about it?: They talk about it being a company value without actually putting the required level of support behind it to make it happen. Coming up with ideas is relatively easy, fast and cheap, but then those ideas need to be executed. This is where companies often fail, by not providing the required level of time and budget to take a rough idea, refine it, experiment on it and finally turn it into a real solution. Additionally, companies usually think of it just from an internal viewpoint, such as whether they think the offering is being improved when it is updated. In reality, if the customer doesn’t perceive the changes as having value, then they won’t be compelled to purchase it. So it is all about the customer’s perceived value.

What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about it?: Flip it on its head, and look at every new thing you are trying for various customers’ perspectives.

Nick is the chief editor of Idea to Value and also the CEO & Founder of Improvides Innovation Consulting. He was voted one of the world’s top innovation bloggers for 2014 and is a leader in thought leadership on the science of improving creativity. Follow his two twitter accounts here:


David Burkus

The application of ideas that are novel and useful

What is your definition of “innovation”: The application of ideas that are novel and useful. Creativity, the ability to generate novel and useful ideas, is the seed of innovation but unless it’s applied and scaled it’s still just an idea.

What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation?: The think about products or technology. Innovation is bigger than a product or a technological platform. And in truth, it’s the innovations to organizations and management that precede product or technology innovation anyway. Great leaders don’t innovate the product; they innovate the factory.

What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation?: Change the conversation? For starters, let’s have the conversation. Conversation meaning a two-way dialogue. Telling employees that “we need more great ideas” almost never works…yet it’s almost always what is done. Instead, let’s open up a dialogue with everyone in the organization about how we can get better at finding, testing, and implementing the great ideas that people are already having.

David Burkus is a best-selling author, award-winning podcaster, and associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University. His new book “Under New Management” is out now. Twitter: @davidburkus

Stephen Shapiro

about staying relevant

What is your definition of “innovation”? Very simply put, innovation is about staying relevant. We are in a time of unprecedented change. As a result, what may have helped an organization be successful in the past could potentially be the cause of their failure in the future. Companies need to adapt and evolve to meet the ever changing needs of their constituents.

What mistake do companies often make when they talk about it? The biggest mistake companies make is asking others for ideas. When asking for ideas, we invite a lot of noise and unnecessary work. Every person inside and outside of your organization has an opinion, suggestion, or idea about how to improve things. The reality is that most of these ideas won’t be effective in producing positive results. Organizations that spent too much time on idea collection, implode from the weight of all of the ideas.

What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about it? For the most effective results, focus on the question, not the solution/idea. I have done a number of studies that show that when you ask people to think outside the box, you reduce the quality of your solutions. By asking more abstract questions, you increase the noise, lower the value, and reduce the relevancy of solutions. The issue isn’t that you need to expand the box. Quite often you are simply looking in the wrong box!

Framing the challenges correctly is a critical key to innovation. For example, bicycle safety advocates have been pushing for mandatory helmet laws. But the real goal is to improve safety. And numerous studies show that safety is greatly improved when there are a large number of cyclists on the road. Ironically, helmet laws have been shown to reduce the number of riders. Solving the problem of getting helmet law compliance is not the same as increasing riders.

Stephen Shapiro is an Innovation Instigator, Hall of Fame Speaker and Author. His books include Best Practices Are Stupid and Personality Poker. Twitter: @stephenshapiro

Pete Foley

a great idea, executed brilliantly, and communicated in a way that is both intuitive and fully celebrates the magic of the initial concept.

What is your definition of “innovation”? I define the innovation process as a great idea, executed brilliantly, and communicated in a way that is both intuitive and fully celebrates the magic of the initial concept. We need all of these parts to succeed. Innovative ideas can be big or small, but breakthrough or disruptive innovation is something that either creates a new category, or changes an existing one dramatically, and obsoletes the existing market leader. We can obsolete ourselves or someone else, and it can be ‘sexy’, or address a basic human need – both the iPad and disposable diapers qualify for me. But it needs to either create a new market, or radically change an existing one.

What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation? We need to stop calling everything breakthrough or disruptive, especially in internal company discussions. It is more than OK to have a balanced pipeline of big and small ideas, and we need to get comfortable with that again. If we demand nothing but disruption or breakthrough, (delivered tomorrow and on small budgets) then that is all people want to work on, and to accommodate this, everything gets labeled in those terms. But language matters, and once we start calling good but smaller ideas breakthrough, we lower the bar. This is a recipe for mediocrity, and is one of the reasons why so many companies struggle with too many small initiatives and not enough big ones.

What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation? Make a long-term investment in innovation culture. Strategy is important, but it is culture that drives most of the smaller, often largely unconscious decisions that permeate an innovation organization. Big ideas take time, productive failure, communication, and collaboration. These are enabled by a culture that protects, and to some degree nurtures big ideas, and innovative, fearless people. I’m not sure if this qualifies as simple, but I think it is essential, and often overlooked.

Pete Foley is a Consultant, Innovator, Artist, Scientist, Photographer, Musician, Accountant and Blogger, with 25 years experience of Innovation and Behavioral Science in the Fortune 50. Twitter: @foley_pete

Gijs van Wulfen

a feasible relevant offering such as a product, service, process or experience with a viable business model that is perceived as new and is adopted by customers

What is your definition of “innovation”? An innovation is a feasible relevant offering such as a product, service, process or experience with a viable business model that is perceived as new and is adopted by customers.

What mistake do companies often make when they talk about it? Companies lack focus in their discussions on innovation. Often there’s a senior manager experiencing an urgent need for something new, fueled by a business challenge. A new competitor may have entered the market; revenues may have decreased dramatically or a big contract has been lost. One essential point is often missed at the start: innovation ideas for what? That’s the question! When you focus your innovation efforts, you’re much more productive. You should start innovation choosing a clear focus.

What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about it? Don’t accept the status quo. Innovation means coming up with something really new: a big idea. When you fully accept the status quo at work or in your personal life nothing will change. There’s a wonderful quote by George Bernard Shaw: The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. Innovation often starts with something that annoys you personally and is relevant for you. Something you personally really want to change, because you need to. It’s the WHY for innovation.

Gijs van Wulfen is a Linkedin influencer and the author of the FORTH Innovation Methodology. Twitter: @gijsvanwulfen

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Kevin McFarthing

introduction of new products and services that add value to the organisation

What is your definition of “innovation”? the introduction of new products and services that add value to the organisation.

What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation? Companies often confuse invention and innovation; they’re different things.

What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation? Companies should really listen more to their consumers and customers.

Kevin McFarthing was voted #1 blogger on innovation in 2015 by Innovation Excellence. He is an expert in Innovation Management, Open Innovation and R&D. Twitter: @InnovationFixer

Robert Brands

Any variation goes as long as it includes new and it addresses customer needs and wants

What is your definition of “innovation”? Not an easy answer: Innovation needs to be defined and agreed upon in each organization, making sure it is strategically and everybody is aligned. Without it, misalignment results in less than optimal focus and results. As long as it includes “new” and it addresses customer needs and wants, any variation goes.

What mistake do companies often make when they talk about it? Innovation is not just Idea generation. It should encompass all Ten Imperatives to Create and Sustain Innovation, from Inspiration to Results; a structured repeatable process needing continued reinforcement and continuous improvement.

What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about it? Since it is “Innovative or Perish”, the ideal thing an organization can do is set a clear and simple goal, like “At least one new product per year” that can be adopted and understood at all levels. However, make absolutely sure objectives and rewards are aligned.

Robert Brands is known at the Innovation Coach®, is a serial entrepreneur and innovation practitioner, workshop facilitator, author and speaker. Twitter: @innovationrules

Paul Hobcraft

the fundamental way the company brings constant value to their customer's business or life, and consequently their shareholders and stakeholders

What is your definition of “innovation”? the fundamental way the company brings constant value to their customers business or life and consequently their shareholders and stakeholders.

What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation? They confuse it with invention, they use it to define anything new, they forget it has to contribute new value and be valued by others as better than what they have known.

What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation? Placing innovation into the core of the organization’s thinking changes the conversations, it alters the time horizons, it shifts the whole dynamics of where to go to grow and sustain the organization for the future.

Paul Hobcraft has been advising numerous organisations on innovation for over 15 years and is consistently considered one of the world’s top innovation bloggers. Twitter: @Paul4innovating

Mike Shipulski

work that delivers new goodness to new customers in new markets, and does it in a way that radically improves the profitability equation

What is your definition of “innovation”? work that delivers new goodness to new customers in new markets, and does it in a way that radically improves the profitability equation.

What mistake do companies often make when they talk about it? Companies do creativity when they should do innovation. There can be no innovation without commercialization.

What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about it? Move from idea generation to product commercialization.

Mike Shipulski is an innovation thought leader, focusing on defining best practices and tools for Product and Technology Development and embed them into company culture. Twitter: @MikeShipulski

Paul Sloane

Creativity is thinking of something new. Innovation is the implementation of something new.

What is your definition of “innovation”? Creativity is thinking of something new. Innovation is the implementation of something new.

What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation? Many companies make grand statements about their commitment to innovation but do not invest in the time, people or money to prototype innovative ideas.

What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation? Commit the resources to a good staff ideas scheme with the target of implementing at least 5 ideas per employee per year.

Paul Sloane is a Speaker, Facilitator and Author, specialising in entertaining talks & workshops on creativity, lateral thinking & innovation. Twitter: @PaulSloane

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Jeffrey Baumgartner

is the implementation of creative ideas in order to generate value, usually through increased revenues, reduced costs or both

What is your definition of “innovation”? the implementation of creative ideas in order to generate value, usually through increased revenues, reduced costs or both.

What mistake do companies often make when they talk about it? They confuse creativity, especially idea collecting, with innovation.

What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about it? Put more women in top management. Research studies have shown it improves the success rate of innovation, and also the bottom line.

Jeffrey Baumgartner is an author, keynote speaker and workshop facilitator specialising in creativity and innovation, and writer of the long-running industry newsletter Report 103. Twitter: @creativeJeffrey

Stefan Lindegaard

I try not to define “innovation” as we should tone down our use of the word and term

What is your definition of “innovation”? I try not to define “innovation” as we should tone down our use of the word and term.

What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation? They talk too much about innovation. They should get back to basics.

What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation? Stop talking about innovation. Focus on corporate transformation – in most cases, this should be driven by digitalization and disruption issues.

Stefan Lindegaard is the Chief Transformer at Transform – or Die! Author, speaker and advisor focusing on corporate transformation based on digitalization, disruption and innovation. Twitter: @lindegaard

Drew Boyd

anything that is new, useful, and surprising

What is your definition of “innovation”? anything that is new, useful, and surprising. That last criteria, surprising, tends to ‘surprise’ people because they usually don’t hear many people talk about it. For me, a great innovation are the simple ones that make you slap your forehead and say, “Gee, why didn’t I think of that?”.

What mistake do companies often make when they talk about it? The biggest mistake companies make is not taking stock in how innovative they already are. I’ve worked with some of the most innovative companies in the world whose employees moan that they’re not innovative enough, or that they desperately want a “culture of innovation.” It’s crazy. So I tell companies they don’t have an innovation problem. They have an employee perception problem. My best guess is that employees get frustrated when they see their company kill a viable project in favor of other priorities. It wears them down.

What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about it? A simple thing companies can do to change the conversation about innovation is to train it. Set up formal courses teaching systematic methods of innovation like SIT and TRIZ. Teach people about idea management, idea selection, and pipeline development. In other words, see innovation as a competency like leadership or ethics.

Drew Boyd is Co-author of Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results. Innovation practitioner, professor, blogger, and speaker. Twitter: @DrewBoyd

Michael Graber

New, organic value creation by applying creativity, in-depth relationships with consumers and customers, and new thinking. 

What is your definition of “innovation”? New, organic value creation by applying creativity, in-depth relationships with consumers and customers, and new thinking.

What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation? Because innovation is a process, they bucket it as a value engineering process, rather than a value generation process.

What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation? Live it. Host workshops. Bootcamps. Show executive support for innovation projects.

Michael Graber is Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Southern Growth Studio, and has a particular focus on innovation, to deliver high-impact go-to-market strategies and product launches. Twitter: @SouthernGrowth

Jorge Barba

the future delivered
What is your definition of “innovation”? something new or different that delivers value to the world, with the key criteria that I’m not innovating if I’m not bettering people’s lives. Put simply, it is the future delivered.

What mistake do companies often make when they talk about it? Mistakes are too many, one is punishing people for trying new stuff. Leaders that want to build an organization that innovates consistently must provide six things to employees: freedom, resources, diverse teams, support, encouragement and challenge. In other words, you can put it like this: Have bold goals, get out of the way and reward people for trying.

What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about it? Companies, just like people, get in their own way. So ask, how are we impeding people from doing the things necessary that drive innovation? Then stop doing that and start doing that does.

Jorge Barba is an innovation insurgent and a partner at Blu Maya, an innovation consultancy helping ordinary companies become extraordinary. Twitter: @jorgebarba

Analysis of the innovation definition

As you can see by all of the responses above, every expert has their own views on what innovation is and how companies can improve it. Some of them even rightly point out that it’s become a bit of a buzzword and perhaps we shouldn’t be looking for a singular definition as it will vary based on circumstance.

But after going through all of the responses, it became clear that there are definitely some underlying themes that crop up again and again.

Here is my analysis of the most-cited aspects of innovation according to this selection of thought leaders:

0%
Having an idea
0%
Executing the idea
0%
Addresses a real challenge
0%
Add value to the company
0%
Add value to customer
0%
Different perspective / thinking
0%
Moving forward
0%
Definition not important
0%
Addressing new market

Based on all of these factors combined, if we were to create the ultimate innovation definition, it would be:

The ultimate definition of innovation

Executing an idea which addresses a specific challenge and achieves value for both the company and customer

Executing an idea which addresses a specific challenge and achieves value for both the company and the customer

So there you have it. The ultimate innovation definition, put together based on the analysis of some of the world’s greatest innovation thought leaders.

I hope you have found this article useful and insightful. We publish thought pieces about innovation and creativity frequently, and they’re all available for free along with numerous other benefits if you sign up for our free membership. You should do it now. And don’t forget to share the article too.

Did you like the article? Which definition do you use in your company? Or do you disagree with any of the points made by the experts here? Let us know in the comments below (we read all comments)

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Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as the world's #5 Innovation blogger in 2016, I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love.
By | 2016-11-04T10:38:14+00:00 March 18th, 2016|Innovation|44 Comments
  • Roberto Battaglia

    My definition of innovation is: “a disobedience with a happy ending”

    • That’s one I definitely haven’t heard before

    • nickskillicorn

      I definitely haven’t heard that one before. Sounds like something people would pay extra for 😉

  • Creativity realized. (By the way, this is a definition of innovation I heard some time ago. If you know who stated it originally, I’d love to know!) Thanks!

    • It’s not a bad one, although it does seem a bit closer related to invention than innovation in my view. I do like the underlying concept though.

    • nickskillicorn

      Don’t know who said that, but I like it. Even though in my mind it’s more closely related to invention than innovation.

  • Mike Steffes

    I’ve noticed an innovation often serves as a survey marker in time– a visible benchmark from which to measure other industry or societal changes.

    • nickskillicorn

      You have a point. I think that’s because innovations which serve as these benchmarks are the ones which are accepted by the society, because people really see the value in it. These are the ones which last, rather than just being a flash in the pan.

  • Amazing that not one person even mentioned Schumpeter in passing, even though most of the definitions included two or three of the components of his definition from almost a hundred years ago.

    • nickskillicorn

      Interesting point, thanks. I think an article that goes into this history of various academic theories would definitely touch on it, whereas this article was designed more as something quicker from numerous viewpoints.

      • There is no shortage of “quick and numerous” in the plethora of online innovation discussions. These definitions are interesting but I agree with Stefan that there is already too much talk about it, and often by “experts” who regurgitate generalizations. The hype, “bandwagon effect”, and uninformed noise about innovation distracts companies and may even stop them from investing in the big changes needed to stay relevant.

  • Xaver Wiesmann

    As if innovation is constrained to companies and customers. This is a very focused perception and is not addressing the nature of innovation. Maybe the term needs to be defined by linguists and not by busyness experts.

  • Hayley Bagnall

    It is a growing concern that 0% of the thought leaders featured in this article addressed the environment as an aspect of innovation. Ultimately to innovate has to be to consciously evolve in harmonious cooperation with our natural world. I did however like Jeffrey Baumgartner’s recommendation to “put more women in top management” – well I’m ready if you are!!

    • nickskillicorn

      It’s a fair point Hayley, and there are more and more examples every day where innovations are addressing the environment. Just recently I wrote an article about the EU encouraging companies to reduce food waste (https://www.ideatovalue.com/news/nickskillicorn/2016/03/eu-making-supermarkets-give-unwanted-food-needy/).

      • Hayley Bagnall

        Thank you Nick. I think the biggest challenge is to find a lasting balance between the aspirations of people and the needs of our natural world.
        My passion is to support people transition towards a more sustainable future with a focus on developing innovative ways of working to enable a more chosen, conscious and participatory future to emerge.
        I would be interested to read your article but there seems to be an issue with the link.

        • nickskillicorn

          Thanks for pointing that out, it seems the comment system added a closed bracket to the link which made it not work. I think I’ve fixed it now.

          • Hayley Bagnall

            I appreciate the article is about the EU making supermarkets give unwanted food to the needy, and believe this disruption is a good start, but for any real transformation to take place within our current food system, change cannot happen in isolation.

            What we really should be collectively striving towards is a holistic farm to fork approach which tackles the many interrelated social and ecological issues e.g. the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization confirmed that one third of food produced for human consumption (1.3 billion metric tons) is wasted each year. Jamie Oliver’s reclaiming wonky veg campaign is helping to reverse this trend in the UK. In addition the ‘ugly’ produce is offered at a lower cost making it more accessible to those living in food poverty.

            Supermarkets have a role to play in transforming our food system i.e. to renew our connection between the source of our food, and the impact that is has on the environment when we throw it away. The question is will supermarkets take the lead and adapt to be more supportive of local, place-based culture and enterprises like Riverford Organic – a food box delivery scheme in the UK, Krom Kommer – a social enterprise in the Netherlands making soups from food waste, Original Unverpackt – a German concept store selling groceries without packaging… as well as support new agricultural systems based on biomimicry principles (creating conditions conducive to all life) to tackle food security?

            The solutions exist – they just require a commitment as BIG as the challenge itself!

            You may also be interested to read:

            http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/35449-globalized-monoculture-is-consuming-the-planet-an-interview-with-helena-norberg-hodge

            ‘Stuffed and Starved: From Farm to Fork the Hidden Battle for the World Food System’ by Raj Patel.

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  • Patrice Noailles-Simeon

    We have a triple approach to Innovation :

    At the beginning, In 1939, we find Schumpeter, in his book named « BUSINESS CYCLES, A Theoretical, Historical and Statistical, Analysis of the Capitalist Process ». He gave a clear and accurate definition of innovation: « Therefore, we will simply define innovation as the setting up of a new production function. »

    1 – We think we now can go a little further “Innovation is the development of a new social paradigm with a sustainably global efficiency above the previous paradigm(s)”. This is the economic nature of innovation.

    2 – Behind this economic nature, there is a philosophical nature resulting of the economics of innovation: this increasing efficiency gave progressively to Mankind the capacity of control and command the living standards and the human condition, and hence, Mankind took the position and functions of gods.

    3 – From a sociological point of view, the innovator (very often, the entrepreneur-innovator) is the last innovation designer. His function is to define or choose the technical standard, to define the business model and to sell first significant quantities, certifying the quality of his choices. This core function of the individual initiative as the engine of modern economies goes against any mechanistic or structural vision, from Colbert to Marx. These old visions drove us to centralize innovation and to develop big programs far from ground reality and the decisive power of individual action. We have to develop a more humanist and individualist vision of innovation: a innovator (a man) in his ecosystem … that is far from an innovation system.

    If you keep in mind these three natures of innovation, everything is easier (but not necessarily easy)

    P. Noailles / European Forum for Innovation Policies

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  • Stephanie Goodell

    Innovation is…defined by men. Clearly, that’s all you need to be in order to be innovative.

    • Linda DuChene

      That immediately jumped out at me too, Stephanie.

      • Maren Gube

        Ditto. Among 15 “experts”, you couldn’t find ONE woman for a possibly different and, dare I say it, innovative perspective?

        • Laura Fergerson

          Wow, that was the thing that stood out to me, too!

    • Leonardo Marcos

      Really agree that women would add to the article. Tough it was very insightful. Thanks for this article.

  • Dave

    Innovation is bringing a product or service to a customer before they knew they needed it.

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  • Declan Blanchfield

    Great article – thanks – lets just take these in.

  • Daniel

    Great article and discussion. That Mr. Skillicorn was even able to corner 15 leaders of innovation for this survey is amazing! However, in the process of writing a book that includes a great deal about how to become more of an innovator, I recently came across Webster’s and other dictionary definitions of Innovation and found them to be wanting.

    I found that, like many of the meanings expressed above, the Websters.com meaning is “a new idea, device, or method; the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods”

    The problem with using the term “new” in regard to Innovation, is that “new” is usually the domain of Invention. Innovation always builds upon existing technology or knowledge. It’s an extension of considering an existing challenge and as one leader above put it, would be “perceived as new”, or “new goodness” over an older or outdated product or service. We should say a “new method of” (peeling pears; creating lenses; frying an egg).

    Invention is truly creating something new, if you’re adhering to patent requirements and tests. Even with that, often design patents are in the realm of innovation and not invention.

    So I would say that to use the term “new” in conjunction with Innovation, it should only be used when comparing to older or former products, services, processes, or ways of thinking.

    Aside from that, Innovation is King in today’s world where there’s not that much pure invention happening compared to the amazing innovation being fostered through articles and thought leaders such as we find here.

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  • Braden Kelley

    “Innovation transforms the useful seeds of invention into widely adopted solutions valued above every existing solution.” – Braden Kelley (@innovate)

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