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  • 04.22.09

Defining Innovation

It seems for many something as simple as defining innovation can be a challenge.  Of course, it’s not that surprising.  Innovation is one of those words that are plagued with a surfeit of meanings.  With a quick look at Merriam-Webster On-line, we find: Innovation: \ˌi-nə-ˈvā-shən\ (noun ) 1 : the introduction of something new, 2 : a new idea, method, or device : Novelty

It seems for many something as simple as defining innovation can be
a challenge.  Of course, it’s not that surprising.  Innovation is one
of those words that are plagued with a surfeit of meanings.  With a
quick look at Merriam-Webster On-line, we find:

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Innovation: \ˌi-nə-ˈvā-shən\ (noun ) 1 : the introduction of something new, 2 : a new idea, method, or device : Novelty

These are the common definitions, but in circles of innovation
practice, these common definitions don’t capture the meaning of the
concept very well.  For this reason, we choose to apply different, more
refined definitions to the term in an attempt to capture the nuance of
what innovation means in an organizational setting.  However, the
echoes of the common vernacular continue to haunt our discussion as
people trying to get their arms around the subject struggle with the
distinctions between creativity, invention, and innovation.

Ask ten people to define innovation, and you are likely to get at
least a dozen answers.  However, I’ll put forth a single answer to the
question.

Innovation is the process through which value is created and
delivered to a community of users in the form of a new solution.  Here
we have chosen to frame the definition of innovation as a word
describing a process.  It can also be used to describe a new product or
service, which is the outcome of the innovation process, that delivers
value to a community.  In either case, the key elements of the
definition are newness and value delivery.

Creativity, by contrast, is the ability to imagine new concepts. 
While we won’t discuss what it means to imagine new concepts here, it
is important to note that creativity does not carry the burden of value
creation that innovation does.  This is one of the reasons that in
brainstorming sessions it is not recommended that concepts are screened
for merit.  This allows the brainstorm practitioner the fanciful luxury
of proclaiming success in generating many creative concepts even when
the result is devoid of value.

Invention is also distinct from innovation.  The distinction here
rests on a fine point.  If you think about the three attributes that an
invention must possess to be patentable – novelty, non-obviousness,
utility – there are two key distinctions between inventions and
innovations.  One is that innovations are not required to be
non-obvious.  As all innovations build on the past, it is possible for
an innovation to be obvious.  (Though the value of an innovation is
usual inversely proportional to its obviousness.)  More importantly,
innovations and inventions have a potential distinction in the area of
utility.  Inventions need only be useful to the inventor and have
recognizable utility to the patent examiner.  Innovations must answer
to a higher authority.  Innovations must be deemed useful by the
intended audience of use.  That is to say, an invention is an invention
by virtue of its existence.  However, an innovation must be adopted in
practice by the intended user community to be considered a true
innovation.

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In general, the definitions given here have served me well and have
been well received by other leading innovation practitioners.  Now, it
may seem odd that while innovation in business is mostly where I focus
and business is all about money, I have left mention of money out of
the definition entirely.  There are two reasons for this.  First of
all, for-profit business is not the sole domain of innovation. 
Innovation is ubiquitous in its reach and can be used to serve a
multitude of purposes.  More importantly while it is true that the end
objective is generation of money in the realm of for-profit business,
the primary value delivery of innovation is to the adopting users, not
the business.  It is business of business to figure out how to convert
value delivered via innovation to users into revenue and profits.  (Of
course, a well developed high-performance innovation program
understands this and integrates the business strategy with the
innovation strategy from the start.)

One other point to remember is that innovations can be either
outward facing or inward facing.  An outward facing innovation is one
that targets an end-user audience.  An inward facing innovation may
address in internal audience such as a manufacturing group where a new
method of manufacturing may create a competitive edge.

The funny thing about definitions like this one is that while they
are useful, they are not nearly important as the effect of innovation. 
It is important to members of an organization that innovation is a tool
to be used to create corporate value by delivering monetizable value to
customers.  Companies that master this practice in a sustainable manner
will outperform their peer group competitors.

But if you aren’t implementing high-performance innovation as an
engine of sustainable growth already, it’s time to stop worrying about
the precision of the definition and start worrying about who’s going to
eat your lunch.  Innovation isn’t about talking, it’s about doing.  So,
get cracking, and begin your journey from accidental innovator to
high-performance innovation leader.