What Is Innovation?

Listen to the words of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Seth Godin and you'll discover what separates true innovators from everyone else.

It all comes down to dots.

In his famous commencement speech, Steve Jobs said:

You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Sir Richard Branson has a mantra that runs through the DNA of his companies. The mantra is A-B-C-D. (Always Be Connecting the Dots).

In his manifesto, Stop Stealing Dreams, Seth Godin wrote how students today are educated in "collecting dots. Almost none of it spent teaching them the skills necessary to connect dots. The magic of connecting dots is that once you learn the techniques, the dots can change but you’ll still be good at connecting them."

Helping a Client Connect Dots

Recently, this came to light when I was speaking with a client who was noticing things needing correction and frustrated that employees were not seeing, and addressing, the same things.

I responded stating it’s not a flaw of his seeing things and wanting to improve them that was the problem. The actual problem was why his employees didn’t see those details.

I concluded that this was the single difference between the innovator and the ordinary person: one saw the dots and connected them while others 1) didn’t see them or 2) if they did, they didn’t explore, question, or connect any of them.

This aspect of constant attentiveness to how things are applies to companies, products, brands, as well as to personal brands and is the foundation for this thing we call innovation.

The "What Is Innovation?" Video

Inspired by this discussion and some of today's more brilliant minds, I decided to write an essay on innovation.

The closing lines of the essay struck a chord:

So what is innovation?
Those other dots.
The ones others miss.
And having the certainty to know that the dots you see are not only valid but necessary if the world is to move forward.

So once this was completed, I decided it would work as a script for a video (instead of as an essay) for this Fast Company column. So I asked the graphic motion designer Rafa Galeano to add motion, timing, pacing, and sound.

You can watch the result here:

[Image: Flickr user Aaron Coe]

Add New Comment


  • I see creativity as the spark ("aha!") that drives innovation (change, added value). As for teaching students HOW to innovate, making forced connections between otherwise unrelated things sometimes works. And there are other techniques.

  • Leo

    David, this is good stuff.

    The only thing that makes me uneasy is the claim that innovation arises when "SOMEONE comes along and sees one or more dots beyond the commonly agreed upon dots."

    But as Tim Brown says: "The myth of innovation is that brilliant ideas leap from the minds of geniuses. In reality, most innovations are borne from rigor, discipline and collaboration."

    No one is smart enough to be truly innovative on their own.

  • Brian Stott

    Yet, collaboration is not necessarily association. Nor is it even connected.

    "Talent hits a target that no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

    Connecting the dots is getting to the target that no one else can see.

    The Innovator described here is not simply a problem solver. He/She is open and seeking and connecting. The rigor is not sitting down for simply hard work. Discipline is not what you think either. Discipline is consistency, desire and persistence. Rigor is the continuous exercise of interest and internal demand to find the right and best solutions. Rigor and Discipline are constantly wanting, looking, trying, seeing, connecting to get the desired target.

    “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty........ but
    when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is
    ― Richard Buckminster Fuller

  • David Brier


    All I can say is your comments and quotes are articulate and beautifully poignant.

    Thank you.

    My only quote I can throw into the ring was from a lecture I delivered in Toronto some years ago: "Rules enable one to follow. Knowledge enables one to lead."

  • Brian Stott

    Perfect words for the right time. 10 simple words. I sent them to my teenagers. Thank You.

  • David Brier


    You're very welcome. Thanks again for your kind words.

    If you're able to attend, I am doing an interview live today on branding. It's at 1:30 CST today and those who register (it's free) can ask questions so I can answer any questions people have.

    Here's the info and the links: http://www.risingabovethenoise...

  • Aung Ko Ko

    How does the great surfer make the great board? They connect dots which form the edges of the board in their mind using a clam, and stroke away the wood until the board shows itself. How does the great painter make great drawings? They connect dots which form the silhouette and marks of the thing they're painting, and ink away the white canvas until the drawing shows itself.

    Great video. Great script. Great voicing.

  • jrocmtl

    David, you nailed this. To the people hung up on value - I believe you missed the dot. You're thinking many stages beyond the spark of innovation (that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is not what we're discussing here). When someone came across fire - they just saw a dot that no one else had yet - they did not know, nor could have even comprehended the value they would be creating. Apple has said many times that they believed what they were creating in the iPad was great (even though others rejected it, and tablets as we knew them had already failed), but even Apple is surprised at the value it has created and could never have imagined the millions of use-cases that have developed in the hands of it's users. The initial dot is what really counts, otherwise the value could never come to be. Start looking out for the dots friends.

  • David Brier

    Your comment made me think this over a bit more.

    It all starts with observation, awareness and being open to possibilities. That's the start. The spark.

    THEN discovery can start.

    Value can then be determined since one is bringing into existence something which didn't exist before (introducing new variables previously not on anyone's radar).

    Thanks for adding some more dots to the discussion.

  • Rolf Adema

    Hi David,
    Thank you for your video. It's an art to keep difficult things simple. What I see a lot is that people see a lot of dot's outside their working field but that they CAN NOT 'translate' that into their own company. So I thonk that seeining te doto's, connecting the dot's and implement them is the key. Again thanks a lot.

    Rolf Adema
    Groene Tomaat Marketing
    The Netherlands

  • DiedraBarber

    Appreciate the video and time spent in its creation. I agree with other commenters that missing and important is the worth and connection of value to true innovation. I've been thinking about the world of innovation a great deal these days and find that making connections to who is able to access innovation, who has the privilege to make innovative connections and how power (in terms of race, class and gender) allows innovation to be created is an important component to truly understanding whether or not the current innovation and technology transformations are of good to the masses or just the elite. Without a lens toward value for those not in the inner circle of silicon valley, is something truly innovative?

  • Gaurav Varma

    Dear David,
    Great work and well articulated. But you see - Jake has a solid point. For common people to change the world means adding value; when you help some one do things better that is value and that is the first step to innovation.
    May be you need to revise this video and include the worth of value explicitly.
    And one more thing, as a third person, when I read your comment, you seem to be defending this and it comes across as insecure. Please be open.
    Not many people can do what you are doing , If I were you. I would redo this video, include the points Jake said (which you also see very valid) and show how you moved forward, Now that is innovation. To connect dots and also to see what others saw and is worth mentioning.
    My best to you.
    Happy Diwali.
    Gaurav Varma

  • jakelockley

    An article about innovation that does not mention value once... Fail. Innovation isn't about connecting dots, success or even money, it's about creating widespread beneficial value for as many people as possible. Anything else is just effective business, marketing, and sales for the sake of profit. Con men do that better than anyone and they aren't innovators. Innovation is ultimately about a greater good and the transcendent widespread value that comes from that. What you talk about is creativity (connecting dots) or just plain effective leadership.

  • David Brier


    Thanks for your comment.

    Your point about value is a valid point. Please note the few examples from fire to the wheel to the smartphone all had value resulting from those connected dots.

    Fire provided widespread value.

    So did the wheel and the bicycle. They each made the world more accessible to the masses.

    So did the other examples.

    If the points above were simply "creativity" as you mention, they would have been more like examples of art, music, and performance arts (activities that I consider add immense value to the culture all by themselves) enjoyed by those who are merely patrons of the arts and creativity.

    I consider how one uses any dots they connect to ultimately determine their value. Do they use those dots to unite and empower or divide a culture and cause conflict?

    Those are the dots I am connecting.

    I hope this gives a context for the points mentioned above.

  • Mike Watson

    thanks for this- my site is called connecting the unconnected- speaking exactly to your points about connecting the 'dots' = innovation- loved the article/video- stay remarkable