Truth 1: Innovation Is New Stuff That Is (Made) Useful

Innovation is new stuff that is useful. That’s just about the best definition. It clears up what’s interesting about innovation without overcomplicating. It also leads to the two questions that you should be asking next: Useful for who? How new is new?

Usefulness is in the eye of the user. If you have an idea for improving something but do nothing with it – then you have not invented or innovated. If you don’t share it you haven’t even helped anyone else to invent or innovate – the idea will die with you. If you share your idea then it becomes an insight. If you put your insight into practice, it becomes an invention. If your invention is useful to someone then the invention has become an innovation. If the innovation increases human happiness then perhaps we have made progress.

People invent solutions for themselves because they can’t find, can’t afford, or won’t buy, an off-the-shelf product that meets their need. The greater the need the greater the incentive to invent. People invent solutions for other people because they have recognised the need. Inventing useful things for people that they are willing to buy is the basis of commerce and economic prosperity.

Newness is also judged by the user. An idea you have never heard of is new to you. An idea your colleagues have never heard of or never used is new to your company. Two old ideas mixed together are new and may be new enough to be useful in different ways that are useful to someone. Even better, they may be useful enough to give you something you value in exchange. Swapping stuff that is accepted and perfected in one country but appears new and difficult to do in another country is the basis of international trade. Some of what we used to swap was raw materials that just happened to be in one country rather than another but increasingly what we swap is rich with ideas, insights, and innovation.

People may not want something to be completely new. An invention can be so new that it doesn’t fit into anyone’s life. They may reject an idea because it challenges their way of looking at the world. Or because it is simply too much work to change the way they have always worked. All innovations are new, however they vary in their degree of newness:·       

  • Incremental innovation involves small steps, something that is a minor improvement to an existing solution. Small steps have taken Gillette from one razor blade, to two, three, and now five blades.  
  • Radical innovations take big steps, creating major improvements that are often very different to existing solutions. Cloning ‘Dolly’ the sheep qualifies as a radical innovation – it was a first and it was certainly a breakthrough.
  • Revolutions happen when groups of these innovations can together cause a huge, far-reaching impact. The computing revolution was achieved because of thousands of new technologies including the microprocessor, the telephone and the television. Globalisation, the Human Genome Project, and the Lunar Landing would not have been possible without it.

In reality, these innovations often rely on each other. Incremental steps lead to radical innovations that, taken together, lead to revolutions. Inventors take small steps without knowing what they will eventually make possible.

Deliberate attempts to take big steps can either fail or stall because other inventors have not yet taken the radical or incremental steps necessary. Leonardo Da Vinci designed plans for flying machines in the 13th century but these were not possible without advances in aerodynamic and manufacturing knowledge of the late 19th century. Armed with this knowledge, many inventors competed to make manned flight practical.  

They can also fail because the people trying to take the big steps are not aware of small inventions that they need. Philosopher-inventors designed telescopes in Ancient Greece but could not build them because they did not mix with the artisans who made the glass they needed.

Some innovations are dependent on other innovations or conditions. The electric light bulb is of no use without an electric light system including wiring, generators, power stations, and companies to maintain them. Other innovations are more independent, either because they are standalone or because the conditions for their success are already present. The first piece of sharpened flint qualifies as independent. Nearly all modern innovations are dependent on something else but not always on other innovations. Knowing what your idea relies on is vital to its success. 

The focus of the innovation also varies:

  • Product innovations involve new products and new characteristics of old products. The process that makes them may be much the same but the product has changed incrementally or radically.
  • Process innovation refers to new ways of doing something. The product may be the same but the way of producing is new, better, more efficient or more reliable. Computer-aided design and manufacture are process innovations.
  • Organizational innovation finds new ways of structuring and managing people. The product and process may be the same but the way of organising people has changed. Bureaucracy, adhocracy, meritocracy are all ways of organizing.

These areas of focus are often interrelated. New ways of organising people can make it possible to produce new products and follow new processes. New products can require new processes. New processes make new products possible.

In all these ways of looking at innovation, the definition remains the same. It is new stuff considered useful by someone. It can be incremental, radical, or revolutionary. It can be dependent or independent. It can change products, services, processes, or organizations. In fact, it can change anything. Any belief. Any situation. Any nation. Any planet. Which is why understanding and getting better at innovation is vital to our shared future.

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