The Problem of Defining Innovation

Hutch Carpenter just wrote a nice post outlining 25 different definitions of innovation. This is an interesting exercise. He breaks the definitions down into five sub-categories, which all reflect slightly different takes on the nature of innovation.

I find this interesting because I frequently hear people discount the importance of innovation by saying that it is just a buzzword. As evidence, they talk about how it means something different to every person that uses it. In this short video, I get some help from my new kitten Schumpeter in trying to explain why this is so, and why this does not actually reduce the importance of innovation:

Definition of Innovation from Tim Kastelle on Vimeo.

There are a couple of key points here:

  • I define innovation as: executing new ideas to create value. All three parts are important – to innovate you have to do something new, you have to actually execute the idea, and doing so must create value.
  • Innovation is a top-level definition – which means that it has multiple sub-categories. The analogy that I use in the video is that “innovation” is equivalent to “birds”. The category of “birds” includes a range of animals from penguins to peregrine falcons. In the case of those two types of birds, they are extremely dissimilar, yet we still call them both birds. This is because they share a number of traits which tell biologists that they belong in the same order.
  • People often say “innovation” when they actually mean one of the sub-categories. When one person means “radical technological innovation” while another means “incremental process innovation”, it is confusing. This is why some people think that “innovation” doesn’t have a real meaning, because it is actually used to mean many different things.

If there is a gap between where you currently are and where you want to be, the only way to bridge it is by doing something new. Innovating. That’s why innovation is important, and why it’s more than just a buzzword.

I guess one other lesson from all of this is that squirmy kittens make poor co-stars….

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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16 thoughts on “The Problem of Defining Innovation

  1. I think they do, although I guess you could also compress that into executing. However, I use a very broad definition of value – not just profit, or not even just economic value…

  2. Great post, I usually go with “creating value by doing something new”.

    One thing I’m unfortunately finding with trying to talk innovation with companies (or anyone really) is that even the term “innovation” has some seriously bad connotations and I’m usually greeted by groans or people telling me that innovation is nothing. It’d be interesting to see how the term “strategy” was first seen post WWII when it filtered into companies.

  3. Thanks Andrew. I agree that there is a fair bit of innovation fatigue out there, which is partly why I keep hammering on this topic. The other thing is that it is easy to be cynical about it because it is often the case that upper management talks a lot about being innovative while actually doing very little to support or encourage innovation.

    I think that your analogy to strategy post-WWII is probably pretty accurate…

  4. Tim,

    There is always a problem when we try to define something.

    In defining value – value for who, what, when.

    I guess the value part could be seen as a way of measuring innovation – many new but useless things are created and executed.

  5. I take your point Martin. But your last bit I think is right – there’s probably some value (there’s that word again!) in filtering out the new and useless…

  6. How about some measurable metrics? This is just substituting one word in the dictionary for another, it’s meaningless.
    If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

  7. Totally agree about the importance of going beyond ideas and execution that creates new value part. John Kao, in Innovation Nation , raises the issue that many perceive new technology to be innovation when the new technology can only create the possibility for innovation. Someone has to apply the technology the technology(ies) to create new value. I discuss this here in Huffington Post:

    K. Warman Kern

  8. Hi Marc, thanks for stopping by and making the comment. I agree that metrics are important. It’s a topic that we’ve discussed here, here, here, here, here, and here for starters. John and I are also doing a fair bit of research on developing network-based measures for innovation.

    Scott Anthony has also done some terrific work on measuring innovation (using essentially this definition) – there is a summary here, and there is a good chapter on innovation metrics in the book The Innovator’s Guide to Growth, on which he’s the lead author. Stefan Lindegaard has also written on this topic here.

  9. Thanks for the comment Katherine, & for the link to your post (which is a good one!). I haven’t read Kao’s book yet – I’ll track it down. I agree with you that applying technology (or ideas) to create value is the critical step in all of this.

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