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.
- Nick Skillicorn
- David Burkus
- Stephen Shapiro
- Pete Foley
- Gijs van Wulfen
- Kevin McFarthing
- Robert Brands
- Paul Hobcraft
- Mike Shipulski
- Paul Sloane
- Jeffrey Baumgartner
- Stefan Lindegaard
- Drew Boyd
- Michael Graber
- Jorge Barba
- Analysis of all the definitions
- The ultimate definition of innovation
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:
- What is your definition of “innovation”?
- What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation?
- 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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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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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:
The ultimate definition of innovation
Executing an idea which addresses a specific challenge and achieves value for both the company and 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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