There’s More to Innovation Than Novelty

When I went to visit Neil Kay last year, we talked a bit about novelty. He said that the way that we frame PhD research is all wrong – that it is a mistake when we tell people that they need to make a novel contribution to knowledge. Instead, we agreed that people should be looking to advance knowledge, which is a bit different than making a novel contribution.

For example, you could write an economics PhD connecting the theories of Alfred Marshall with those of Justin Bieber. That would certainly be novel (at least, I hope there aren’t too many people trying that), but would it materially advance knowledge? Probably not.

Here’s another example – what do you think this is? I’ll give you a hint – it’s a symbol.

It was on a door at the conference venue that I was in at the end of last week. Throughout the two days that we were there, we had a stream of people walk up, look at the symbol, pause, continue walking down the hall and then compare the symbol with those on two more doors. The women then shrugged and walked into the last door, while the men returned to this one.

Somehow, that’s the symbol for “Men.”

This is an example of bad innovation.

It’s a novel way to indicate which room the men should use, but it’s not a good way to do so.

There are a few innovation lessons contained in the cryptic symbol:

  • Novel ideas are not automatically innovative. Just because an idea is completely new, it doesn’t mean that it’s good. Like the Marshall plus Bieber PhD, novelty doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of the idea. You need more than novelty – in addition:
  • Innovations need to create value. The weird door sign creates negative value – it confuses people, it may lead to potentially embarrassing mixups, and it wastes time. All of these are bad outcomes. To innovate, we need to execute new ideas to create value. To create value, we must remember that:
  • Our innovations have to fit within the existing economic network. As Jeffrey Phillips pointed out in our discussion of flying cars, that is a technology that will only work when there are a large number of related technical and social innovations in place that are required to support flying cars.

    The problem with the “Men” symbol is that it doesn’t connect to any normally accepted method for communicating that this is the room into which men should go. This lack of specificity might be find in the signage for a trendy new nightclub, where part of the mystique comes from being difficult to find. I don’t know about you, but I prefer toilets without that mystique…

When you’re thinking up ideas, it is critical to think about how executing these ideas might create value. If they don’t create clear value for people, then it might be smart to spend your limited resources executing a different idea that does.

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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3 thoughts on “There’s More to Innovation Than Novelty

  1. Yes Tim, I remember the conversation, heck don’t get me started on this, there is at least an article in it if anyone wants to write it.

    Take four words – novel, unique, original, contribution – and then ask which of the four words connotes value. Or which would you like your work described as? I tell my students the answer to both questions should be the last word; “contribution”.

    The first words – novel, unique, original – are often taken to denote value that, but that is adding something in terms of interpretation to words that are simply not intended to covey anything other than distinctiveness of one kind or another as far as one state or condition is concerned compared to all others (and please, no talk of “degree of uniqueness” which is a logical trap that even recent Nobel Prize winners in Economics are prone to fall into). I have been told I have a novel tennis serve, I know I have a unique e-mail address and have been assured I have an original singing voice. So what? What market value do these attributes all have? (answer: only a negative one in the case of my singing voice). Novelty, uniqueness and originality and plain old variation are common place, thank goodness or there would be nothing for selection mechanisms to work on. All the contributions and comments on this website are original if they are not quotes or plagiarized. It is the rather humdrum and unexciting word “contribution” that really matters as far as value is concerned.

    So where did all this abuse of rather neutral words come from? I blame we economists, the only way you can add value in textbook economics is to have some unique or differentiated advantage that separates you out from the cloned world of perfect competition (the fact that the cloned world does not exist helps create and reinforce the myth of uniqueness being rare – “uniqueness” is actually the norm in most industrial contexts).

    Jared Diamond blames the lawyers, the “heroic theory of invention” is encouraged by patent law, because an applicant for a patent must prove the novelty of the invention submitted and so has a financial incentive to ignore or denigrate previous work (“Guns, Germs and Steel”, Norton 1999, pp. 244-45).

    You could also blame Business Week and Forbes. I gave up trying to use these as source material for teaching purposes long time ago because it was full of “unique” personalities and heroic entrepreneurs and much less on strategy and how things actually worked. The UK-based Economist magazine and Financial Times are much better in these respects (maybe it’s a cultural thing).

    But I digress – like I said you should not have got me started on this. I just hope it’s a contribution of sorts.

    Neil Kay

  2. Neil, I definitely agree about the role that patent law plays here – that’s to blame for a LOT of misapprehensions about innovation.

    Thanks for filling in some of my thoughts here!