I spoke to 11 of the world’s leading female innovation experts to get their definition of “innovation”. The variety in their responses may surprise you.
In 2016, I wrote the article What is innovation? 15 experts share their innovation definition in order to answer the question of “What is innovation?”.
Since then, the article went viral, with thousands of shares and hundreds of thousands of views. To this day, it often comes up as one of the top Google results for “innovation definition” or “what is innovation”.
However, there was one glaring problem with the original list. All of the experts which responded to my original set of questions were men (even though I did ask several female innovation experts for their views at the time). This meant the original article only included male perspectives. I have also since seen a mounting amount of scientific research showing how women do not even get the same credit for their creativity or innovation work as if a man were to suggest the same idea.
In the intervening time, I have gotten to know dozens of smart, strong female leaders and innovation experts, as part of my consulting and speaking work, as well as by interviewing them for the Idea to Value Podcast.
So for International Women’s Day 2022 (March 8th), I decided it was time to include more female voices in the debate, and update the original article.
I contacted a selection of my fellow innovation experts (this time all women) 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 were incredible, with insightful recommendations on what it takes to make innovation succeed at companies of any size.
What is your definition of “innovation”? I think of it as something new that creates value. That could be a new product, of course, which is what people usually think of. But it can also be a new process, a new combination, a new workflow – really across the board changing the existing order of things, but in such a way that new value is created.
What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation? I think the biggest mistake is to fall victim to innovation theatre. We send people off to Silicon Valley, we have boot camps where thousands of innocent Post-It notes go to die …but it all goes exactly nowhere because we haven’t built the practices in the organization to transform so that the significant new things can take their rightful place in the organization’s future. To do it for real requires ideation, of course, but then incubation (going from an idea to something you could get customer feedback from) to acceleration (bringing the new thing to market).
What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation? The simplest is to put it in the #1, #2 or #3 slot on everybody’s agenda. Just paying attention to it in the midst of all the hubbub of today’s business is a huge positive thing. Then, have a process for aligning strategy (which pulls you forward) with budgeting (which anchors you backward) with project governance (which is usually a total mess) with people’s incentives. I’ve been working on a tool to help with that, but it is really hard.
Podcast Link: Rita on the Idea to Value Podcast
Rita McGrath is a best-selling author, sought-after speaker, and longtime professor at Columbia Business School. As one of the world’s top experts on innovation and growth, Rita’s work is regularly published in the Harvard Business Review. She is consistently ranked among the Top 10 management thinkers in the world and was ranked #1 for strategy by Thinkers50. Twitter: rgmcgrath
What is your definition of “innovation”? Innovation must be rooted in improving competitive advantage, customer needs, employee expectations and now, sustainability. Innovation should make a difference, add value, have a positive impact and increase capabilities of businesses and consumers alike.
What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation? They mistakenly think the term innovation refers to only big, multi-year, heavy investment, ‘revolutionary’ changes. Which means they do not believe small changes over time, failing, learning and adjusting can or will have a meaningful impact. They also don’t believe that innovation can happen by co-creating with customers or partners, or that you can rely on a strategic partner to innovate on your behalf. They could not be more wrong. Innovation can be any or all of those.
What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation? You can’t change the conversation or perspective if you don’t know where your starting point is. Agree on an internal definition at your company – solicit input from all over the organization, not just those in product development, IT and the C-Suite. Once you have agreement, align all innovation initiatives, metrics, rewards, organizational structure and investments to that vision.
Tiffani Bova is the global growth evangelist at Salesforce and the author of the Wall Street Journal bestselling book GROWTH IQ: Get Smarter About the Choices that Will Make or Break Your Business. Bova has been named to the latest Thinkers50’s list of the world’s top management thinkers. Twitter: Tiffani_Bova
What is your definition of “innovation”? An innovation is an invention converted into scalable value: that value could be financial, social or cultural value.
What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation? They don’t bother to clearly define innovation and therefore people end up talking over and around each other. There needs to be a lingua franca for innovation in an organization- to make sure everyone is on the same page. If we don’t have clarity on our present state (i.e., ‘What do we mean by innovation?”, it will be challenging to forge the path towards an innovative future state.
What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation? The main thing is to start with creativity- understand that creativity is the engine for innovation. And I don’t mean the creativity that we only see artists do so well- I am referring to our ability to “toggle between wonder and rigor to solve problems”. Companies must hire for creativity and incentivize creativity by dedicating budget, time and people resources. One first step is to design the space and the time for the wonder (deep curiosity, audacious dreaming, awe and pausing) and for the rigor (focus, mastery of skill and discipline).
Podcast Link: Natalie on the Idea to Value Podcast
Creativity strategist Natalie Nixon is “the creativity whisperer for the C-Suite”. She is a highly sought after keynote speaker, valued for her accessible expertise on creativity, the future of work and innovation. Twitter: natwnixon
What is your definition of “innovation”? You approach a problem or challenge in a way that turns out to be better than before
What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation? It is often too abstract and too narrow all at once. What do we mean when we say innovate? Do we mean innovate around products, processes, people? All of the above? What metrics will we use to know that our innovation has been successful?
What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation? Innovation starts on the inside. Deliberate self-innovation (changing one small thing––like committing to really listen and consider an idea that a colleague has proposed, not just to dismiss) will give others permission to self-innovate. A myriad of small self-innovations will lead to large, wholesale innovation across your organization.
Podcast Link: Whitney on the Idea to Value Podcast
Whitney Johnson is CEO of the tech-enabled talent development company Disruption Advisors and teaches the S Curve of Learning to managers and companies as both a keynote speaker and a frequent lecturer for Harvard Business School’s Corporate Learning. One of the top ten business thinkers in the world as named by Thinkers50, Whitney is an expert at smart growth leadership. Twitter: johnsonwhitney
What is your definition of “innovation”? “Something New that creates Value”. “Something” can be a product, a service, a process or a business model. “New” is relative as it can be new to the world, your industry, or your organization, with different impact levels. “Value” is the most important word of the equation as it is not limited to revenue but taps into emotional benefits and depends on the context in which the innovation is used.
What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation? Managing innovation as a they manage business, driven by performance and KPI’s, and checking the Innovation box when they have a beautiful process in place.
What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation? Beyond data-driven processes, focus on their human potential in terms of creativity and emotions: empathy, intuition, collaboration,… to create innovative solutions that emotionally connect with consumers.
Podcast Link: Fabienne on the Idea to Value Podcast
Fabienne’s mission is to empower organizations and individuals to recognize and value feminine and masculine traits associated with innovation. Organizations of any size and type can put these traits to work together in service of more meaningful and sustainable innovation. Twitter: innoveveLLC
What is your definition of “innovation”? Innovation is typically described as the application of ideas that are both original and practical. Yet I think innovation is a much more nebulous concept – more of an amorphous shape shifting energy that is initiated and fuelled by a desire for improvement. Creative and critical thinking, which can enable the ability to generate novel and useful ideas, provide the critical ideal starter conditions for innovation. The creative part is where the process can get messy and unpredictable. Ideas are fashioned like shapes out of clay and continually formed, destroyed and reformed through the process of experimentation. Once a specific unique form takes shape that is deemed to be potentially workable, it can then be tested, developed, matured and applied at scale through more rigorous critical processes. Ideas can then grow into robust practical innovations of value.
What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation? I could name a few mistakes.
Firstly, while many companies will latch onto innovation as a trend and talk about it incessantly, yet if you scratch beneath the thin veneer of the glossy brochures and websites there is often not enough depth behind the concept. Are there opportunities for creative and critical thinking – for experimentation and open investigation? Have employees been provided with the tools and skills development that can ensure this process happens deliberately rather than simply haphazardly? Are there systems and structures in place that will assist with the generation, progression and implementation of developing and implementing fledgling ideas?
There can be a hesitancy or outright fear when it comes to going deeper too. How many organisations want to fully embrace innovation when they understand the potential implications of unleashing the power of innovation in the organisation (if they appreciate what it can mean in practice). Few companies therefore truly commit to supporting innovation. Although the term will invariably feature in the values and vision statements of the best and brightest companies. But what company really wants to risk challenging the status quo and committing to a destructive process that can lead to unknowable outcomes?
Additionally, many people in companies want to jump straight to the solution or final innovation and skip the creative and critical thinking stages. But then they inevitably come up with mediocre results. I think it’s also a concern when I hear about innovation being used purely in reference to technical developments, as that is just one potential application. Innovation can be present in any context, and in organisations innovations can be improvements to any products, processes or services.
Finally, to me any reference to innovation in the organisation context should also focus on the leadership approaches or practices that will help shape a culture and ensure sustainability. Ideas can only flourish and grow roots where they are well supported, and this is why a lot of great ideas wither and die before they have had the chance to get established.
What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation? I’m going to recommend two simple things:
First – don’t just think you can jump into innovation without first focusing on creating a culture of creative and critical thinking. It is important to address the blocks to creative and critical thinking (both psychological and environmental) and then encourage the development of the right mindset and skillset to ensure there is an innovation-ready culture. Try asking ‘What is stopping me / us from innovating? What can we do to address that obstacle?
Second – develop an ambidextrous approach that facilitates both creative and critical thinking. This will need to start with the leaders, who set the tone. Leaders will need to understand how to apply the principles of ambidextrous leadership – which involves recognising your own bias towards either exploration (eg through a focus on creative thinking) or preservation (eg through a focus on critical thinking). This can lead to an understanding of how to support the development of both breakthrough new ideas, and incrementally building on established ideas that work. Leaders will need to become ambidextrous in their approach to deal more effectively with the complex competing demands of our current rapid change world. Try identifying individual preferences to encourage personal awareness of how to leverage and complement strengths, and do an innovation audit on the organisation with both of these perspectives in mind to see if both are adequately incorporated.
Podcast Link: Gaia on the Idea to Value Podcast
Gaia Grant, is the MD of Tirian Consultancy, a keynote speaker, researcher on innovation culture and sustainability at Sydney University Business School, a global innovation culture consultant, and bestselling international author. Twitter: gaiagranttirian
What is your definition of “innovation”? Innovation is creating new value. I often compare innovation to invention, which is merely creating something new. There are a lot of inventions that aren’t providing value to anyone, these are failed products. And the person who gets to decide whether the new idea creates value is the customer, not the inventor.
What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation? They don’t think about innovation as an iterative process. Because there are so many unknowns when innovators are doing something that hasn’t been done before, they often need multiple tries to get it right. Many large organizations spend the full budget on version 1, and shut the project down when it doesn’t meet expectations. Many more corporate innovation projects would be successful if they had the opportunity to pivot and try again.
What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation? I think many companies underestimate the importance of psychological safety to an innovative environment. I’ve worked with many organizations filled with employees with incredible ideas that they don’t feel safe to share.
Podcast Link: Diana on the Idea to Value Podcast
Esther Emmily Gons
What is your definition of “innovation”? The process of creating new value (for the planet and) for customers that can sustain through a working business model.
What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation? To treat all innovation in the same way. Introducing a new green product for hair care, for instance, cannot be brought to success in the same way as searching for a new business model around intelligent energy balancing for more sustainable homes. Risk is much higher in the latter. The timelines are longer, and a certain amount of complexity needs to be overcome. By evaluating them in the same way, less risky projects that have an immediate value for the company will always be prioritized over possible future value for customers.
What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation? Create clear definitions for the types of innovation recognized in your company. Giving them recognizable names helps. For each type, determine the process and method that belong to it. Doing this makes it straightforward for everyone how to behave and what to do, which will make it easier for people to change their mindset. Make sure that the types you identify are from a managerial perspective. For instance, I am a big fan of social innovation, but identifying this as a type only confuses people if they cannot understand what process or method they should use to pursue it. Social innovation can be any type of innovation from the perspective of how you should treat it. It is more effective to make it a strategic goal for all types of innovation to contribute to people and the planet than to identify it as a separate type.
Podcast Link: Esther on the Idea to Value Podcast
Esther Gons is the co-author of The Corporate Startup, winner of the 2019 Golden Axiom Business Book Award and the 2018 Management Book Of The Year Award. She is also the co-author of the recently released book Innovation Accounting, and the founder and CEO of GroundControl. Twitter: wilg
What is your definition of “innovation”? Approaching every situation saying “how can we make this better?”
What mistakes do companies often make when they talk about innovation? Being so focused on Innovation with a capital “I,” that they don’t encourage and teach employees to look for micro-innovations that would make incremental improvements that can really add up. In our Courageous Cultures research, 49% of employees said they’re not regularly asked for their ideas, 67% said their manager operates around the notion that “this is the way we’ve always done it, and 40% said they lack the confidence to share their ideas. Companies who teach critical thinking and problem solving at every level will have a distinct competitive advantage when it comes to innovation.
What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation? Create clarity, cultivate curiosity, and respond with regard. Clarity: be very clear that you really do want people’s ideas and give them enough strategic context so they can think bring you ideas you can use. Curiosity: proactive ask people for their ideas. Respond to ideas (even if you can’t use them) with gratitude, information (what will happen with the idea), and an invitation to continue to contribute more.
Podcast Link: Karin on the Idea to Value Podcast
Karin is a former Verizon Wireless executive, and an Inc. Magazine Great Leadership Speaker. She inspires and guides leaders with Live Leadership Development programs; her weekly video blog, Asking For a Friend; and four books. Twitter: letsgrowleaders
What is your definition of “innovation”? Something new that creates value
What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation? They use innovation as a “one size fits all” term rather than defining a few types of innovation, each with its own purpose (improve the business, extend the business, create a new business), timeline, and risk profile. Leadership delegates it to individuals or small teams. They treat it like a hobby – there are no clear goals and they focus on it only when times are good and resources are plentiful. They do it as part of an event (shark tank, hackathon, field trip to Silicon Valley) rather than a discipline that is simply part of how they do business.
What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation / perspective about innovation? Define at least 3 different types of innovation. Leaders need to actively engage with teams and role model the mindsets and behaviors that allow innovation to flourish (which are often the opposite of what is required to manage the existing business). Pursue 1 project that can prove to the organization that innovation is possible and is not the latest “management flavor of the month”
Podcast Link: Robyn on the Idea to Value Podcast
Robyn Bolton founded MileZero to combine the best theories and frameworks in the world with a relentlessly practical and collaborative approach so that my clients will quickly realize the potential of their businesses, get real results, and build the capabilities and confidence to continue innovating. Twitter: RM_Bolton
What is your definition of “innovation”? We do not prescribe a definition of innovation, instead, we initiate a creative conversation with clients, to facilitate their own definition, depending on their unique context and strategic intent for innovation. Our starting point usually is – “innovation involves change or something different that adds value” focussing on the words – “change” how innovation usually involves systemic change for it to be successful, “different” how innovation involves learning how to be, think and act differently, and finally on “adding value” how it needs to result in an outcome that adds value to the quality of their user or customers lives, in ways they appreciate and cherish. We then expand the creative conversation ” Innovation is about successfully bringing the new to the world differently” and facilitate a response around what “successfully bringing the new to the world means” in their context, and ensure that it is aligned to their strategic intent, and that to do it “differently” requires consideration of the type of innovation they are pursuing (incremental, breakthrough, disruptive and differential) reinforcing that there is no “best” type.
What mistake do companies often make when they talk about innovation? Some of the biggest mistakes companies make when they talk about innovation, include:
- thinking that doing agile makes them innovative, when there is a huge disconnect between what an agile transformation promises and delivers and what developing an innovative culture, leadership, team and people capability involves.
- lack of strategic alignment, in other words, no clear purpose or clearly defined outcome from innovation, and a lack of a strategic focus as to what type of innovation to pursue
- think its just about technology, when its really about people and technology,
- lack of commitment and investment to the deep and continuous learning processes required to embed and sustain innovation into behaviours, systems, and symbols,
- lack of understanding of the role of systemic and cultural change needed for an innovation initiative to be effective and successful,
- not developing a psychologically safe environment for people to experiment, make mistakes and learn from both doing and failure,
- lack of understanding that collaboration, accountability, and inclusion are the key anchors for embedding and sustaining innovation
What simple thing can a company do to change their conversation/perspective about innovation? Be open-minded, and open-hearted and unlearn what has worked in the past, and adopt a beginners mind to relearn what will work for their organisation in the future, considering that innovation involves both a strategic and a systemic focus, and in both people and technology, depending on their purpose and unique context for innovation.
Also important are:
- an investment of time and money in change management (building peoples readiness and receptivity),
- enable collaboration between people and technologies across boundaries (breaking down silos and barriers to share knowledge, skills, experiences, and data),
- an external focus on users, customers (finding openings, niches, new markets where they can create and deliver value),
- and invest in deep and continuous learning (upskilling people be, think and act differently) in the 21st century and build their capability to adapt and grow through disruption).
Podcast Link: Janet on the Idea to Value Podcast
Janet has over 30 years of global experience consulting and leading culture development, change management, leadership, team and innovation learning interventions to some of Australasia’s and Israel’s top 100 companies. Twitter: JanetSernack
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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