The basic definition from The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary says, “innovation is the introduction of new things, ideas, or ways of doing something.” The problem with this definition is that it makes it easy to get innovation and creativity mixed up. But while creativity is concerned with generating novel ideas, these ideas may have no practical application. Innovation, on the other hand, especially in a business context, needs to be focused on practical solutions that create value. Having an innovative idea is not enough. Without carrying through and implementing it, it remains no more than an idea.
In addition, by starting with the phrase “innovation is the introduction of new things”, the definition masks the fact that innovation doesn’t necessarily entail the creation of something entirely new. Taking an idea from one discipline and adapting it to create a solution for a problem in another field is also a type of innovation. The idea of putting wheels on suitcases was an innovation, but all it did was apply 5,000 year old technology to a modern problem
As we’re considering innovation in a business context, it’s important to include the need to create value. It’s not about innovating for the sake of innovating, but about practical solutions that drive value and progress. The value might be for the organisation, for the client, or for society as a whole. It may come about by improved efficiencies in the current approach or production process; through additional and beneficial refinements to the current offering; from the creation of an entirely new solution to a problem or answer to an existing consumer demand; or even from the identification and solution of a problem that was previously unnoticed.
We’ve already said that a creative idea is not innovative if it doesn't have a practical application. The truth of this is clear once we include the need to create value as part of our definition of innovation. It’s also hard to think of something as an innovation if it isn’t scalable and can’t be reproduced easily, as it won’t be possible to deliver the value at scale.
It’s often not clear whether we can even agree on what innovation is, let alone on how to integrate it into our business culture.
In reality, though, some ideas that we have to dismiss today may simply be ahead of their time. Once the technology is available that makes it possible to replicate, mass produce, and deliver, the creative idea can be exploited.
Despite examples like the wheelie suitcase that are unbelievably obvious in hindsight, it’s tempting to think of innovation as arising from serendipitous discoveries that disrupt the status quo or permit a radical change or complete replacement of the current norm.
But if we return to the dictionary, we’ll find Merriam Webster pointing out that innovation “can refer to something new or to a change made to an existing product, idea, or field.” So, while that radical change is possible, we may also be looking at a gradual, step-by-step process of improvement.
It’s hard to have innovation without the freedom to experiment and think outside the box.
It may not come as easily to us to use the term innovation for gradual change – after all, it’s to be expected that when we continue to offer the same service or product over a long period of time, we will find ways to improve or upgrade the offer without any major shake-up. Also, the natural development and evolution of the technology available to us often offers us ways to improve our business offerings without any innovation taking place within our own organisation.
While spontaneous good luck may well play a part in innovation, by its very nature, it isn’t something we can rely on. So if we want to innovate, we need to develop a deliberate, systematic process that will work for our particular organisation. (At this point, it’s worth going back to the definition of innovation and making sure that everyone who is involved is actually on the same page so that confusion doesn’t arise from disparate interpretations and expectations.)
Among the big barriers to innovation are our tendency to accept what we’re used to and our reluctance to leave our personal comfort zone. But anyone who has ever travelled, or even observed how a friend's family does things differently from the way we do them, is aware that once you step into a new environment, other values and expectations become the norm. This gives us a clue to the benefits to be found from diversity.
Cross-pollination of ideas and transfer of knowledge and approaches between disciplines is likely to foster creativity and drive innovative solutions. This means that a truly diverse team, where there’s a genuine mix of cultures, ages, ethnicities, perspectives, and experience, is more likely to find unexpected solutions than a homogeneous team where preconceptions align and everyone thinks alike.
Many innovations are focused on increasing efficiency in production or processes. Although this suggests that innovation and efficiency should be comfortable bedfellows, this isn’t typically the case, which leads us on to a final word of warning for those looking to encourage innovation in their organisation.
While creative ideas don’t necessarily count as innovation, it’s hard to have innovation without the freedom to experiment and think outside the box. Sadly, for most businesses, the need to chase profits and satisfy shareholders can limit such creative freedom. All too often, then, the innovators have their wings clipped and are discouraged from flights of fancy by those who see how processes and procedures can streamline an organisation and lead to money saving efficiencies.
To discover more about this conflict, read Blair Enn’s article where he coins the term “the innoficiency principle” to describe this tension between efficiency and innovation.
Tantamount have sponsored the Innovation Awards for a couple of years now because we’re interested in working with companies who are making a difference through innovative approaches, products and services. We understand that it isn’t always easy to explain a new idea, but we have plenty of experience helping clients to communicate effectively with a range of stakeholders, engaging them through storytelling, rich media and interactivity, and helping create brand communities, so we want to offer our voice to the conversation.
• “The discipline of innovation” by Peter F. Drucker https://hbr.org/2002/08/the-discipline-of-innovation
• What is innovation? from the McKinsey Explainer series: https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/mckinsey-explainers/what-is-innovation
• Innovation in business: what it is & why it’s so important from Harvard Business School Online's Business Insights: https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/importance-of-innovation-in-business
• Mystery of the wheelie suitcase: how gender stereotypes held back the history of invention https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/jun/24/mystery-of-wheelie-suitcase-how-gender-stereotypes-held-back-history-of-invention
• Win without pitching: The Innoficiency Problem by Blair Enns https://www.winwithoutpitching.com/the-innoficiency-problem/
• WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization Global Innovation Index https://www.wipo.int/global_innovation_index/en/