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 ti