What is Innovation?


People often think it’s weird when they hear that I study innovation – even people in very innovative jobs.  The biggest reason for this is mistaking invention for innovation.  If you do this, then studying innovation makes no sense at all – what can you learn about the flash of insight, the stroke of genius, etc.?

That’s why defining innovation is important – and why nearly everyone in working in the intellectual domain of innovation comes up with their own definition!  Here is the definition that I use:

Innovation is executing new ideas to create value.

Here is one way to picture it:

Thinking of it visually emphasises that all three parts of the definition.  Everyone gets the “new idea” part of it.  But it’s not enough to have a great idea, you also have to execute it.  And even after you’ve done that, you’re not finished.  It’s not innovation if you’re not creating value for people.

This is the foundation of the Innovation Value Chain idea.  John and I outline the research behind this concept in this paper – but  the main idea is this: if you don’t have all three elements in place, you don’t have innovation.

At an organisational level, this means that innovation is a process – the process of idea management.

To be an innovative organisation, you again need to be good at all three parts: generating great ideas, selecting & executing them, and getting them to spread.

There are three important points about defining innovation to consider:

  1. Your definition needs to work for you.  I’ve given two talks on innovation to scientific groups over the past few days, and one of the guys yesterday said “Oh, you could also think of that as science, engineering and commercialisation.”  In their context, yes you can.  This raises an important point that Jorge Barba made recently – whatever innovation definition you use, you need to own it and it needs to work in your context:

    The end result, is that if you are an employee and you pitch your idea as a “true innovation that challenges the established order”, it might get rejected because it means the company is taking on an untested and unproven idea.

    In other words, if it doesn’t fit with the mental model of your leaders, it won’t get noticed.

    Point: Whether you believe innovation is something new applied, an increment or whatever, the bottom line is your organization needs to come up with collective definition of what innovation means to you. Not your competitors or anyone else.

  2. Getting the idea to spread is often the missing component. The two science organisations that I was talking with both felt that this is where they are weakest. This is a problem because both of them are doing outstanding science – and their ideas needto be adopted more widely.There are a couple of ways to address this. Within an organisation, you need to get people committed to getting their ideas to spread. As Ian Frazer says, “there’s no point curing mice.“The second path is to make sure that your ideas are solving real needs. Braden Kelly pointed out last week that his innovation definition explicitly takes this into account:

    Innovation transforms the useful seeds of invention into solutions valued above every existing alternative.

    That valued about other choices bit is important – you can’t do this if you’re not meeting genuine needs.

  3. Innovation by definition is uncertain. The last point to keep in mind is that for something to really be innovative, you can’t know in advance with certainty that it will work. Matt Edgar pointed me to a quote from Bruno Latour that captures this perfectly:

    …a project is considered innovative if the number of actors is not known from the outset.

    As always with Latour, the quote is both a bit loopy but also insightful. The key issue here for me is the emphasis here on uncertainty – without uncertainty right from the start, you’re not being innovative according to Latour.

The misunderstandings about innovation that I run into most frequently arise through thinking about innovation as being the same as having ideas. If you view it that way, then there’s nothing for me to study, and nothing for you to manage.

To be usable, a working definition of innovation must go beyond just having ideas. One way or another it also has to involve actually executing these ideas. And probably most importantly, it must involve creating value. If you don’t create value, then the idea will not spread.

So that’s why I say that innovation is executing new ideas to create value.

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

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

21 thoughts on “What is Innovation?

  1. I dunno. ‘executing new ideas to create value’ is clunky and very subjective. But then, that’s the problem with most innovation definitions. ‘innovation’ is like ‘fish’: you know it when you see it, but it’s not a concept with well defined boundaries. It’s only when we look back that we can say that something is innovative: it’s not something we can define in advance.

    This is why I’ve adopted the approach of considering all attempts to define innovation and nail it down to be futile (http://peter.evans-greenwood.com/2010/07/26/what-is-innovation/). Just get out there and solve interesting problems (http://peter.evans-greenwood.com/2012/04/27/taking-innovation-to-the-edge/). Don’t worry if its innovative or not. Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix were just trying to express something that they could hear in their heads. They weren’t trying to be innovative.

    • Sorry for the slow reply Peter – your comment got trapped in the spam folder…

      I agree with what you’re saying about the importance of actually solving problems – that’s one of the key messages that I’m trying to get at with my work on the Innovation Matrix idea (http://timkastelle.org/blog/2012/04/the-innovation-matrix-reloaded-again/).

      At the same time, definition is important, especially for firms. There is some management of the process that’s possible, but you can’t do it if you don’t have at least a working definition.

  2. Spot on, Tim. Innovation is inherently uncertain, it is also inherently social. Latour considers that actors can be both human and non-human, so for example a touchscreen can treat equally as an actor alongside a potential customer and a mobile phone shop sales assistant. Innovation is the process of negotiation between those diverse actors to form alliances and consensus in place of uncertainty.

    • Thanks for the comment Matt – and thanks for connecting me up with that great quote! I’ve read a bit of Latour’s work (and that of others) on Actor Network Theory, so I know a bit about that approach. John Steen, who cowrites the blog with me here actually used a fair bit of ANT in his PhD thesis. I know that he knows Latour much better than I do. It’s not something we’ve used much here on the blog though…

  3. Great post with excellent food for thought!
    The “spread is often the missing component” indeed.

    Having a diverse network will help spreading (recent post about it: http://jordi.pro/g/7u ).

    In fact depending on the level of “innovation” or “imitation” of the people in your network, the “speed-of-spread” will be very different.
    I wrote in 2004 about the diffusion of technology innovations:

    Jordi (author of Connecting Forward)

  4. Solid definition. However, I take a bit of offense. I study the flash of insight and stroke of genius. Actually, I study what REALLY happens that we describe as the flash of insight. Still, well worded definition and model.

    • Sorry for any offense David! But, having some sound research on what really happens would actually be hugely valuable – so I hope you’re making good progress!

  5. Tim, The distinction I draw between inventing and innovating depends on the mechanism whereby inventions are spread/diffused. I buy into Kelly’s view that innovating is the process that transforms the useful seeds of invention into solutions valued above every existing alternative. Value derives from improved performance. I would define an invention as the raw or generic solution to a perceived problem, or concept thereof. A solution being an alternative system. If a raw invention diffuses then it is evidence that innovating has taken place. More often than not, successful diffusion requires the mutual transformation of both invention and the existing system into which it becomes fitted (a system is a network or web of relationships).

    • more…Tim, To improve your definition requires ‘new idea’ to be defined, otherwise it’s just ambiguous. I consider an ‘idea’ to be a concept of a system that will benefit its user or stakeholder in its operation.

      I work within complex or nonlinear systems theory so uncertainty is built into my model of inventing and innovating. Although it’s useful in the short term for companies to come to a consensus on what invention and innovation mean to them, because without this neither can be managed effectively within that particular context, within a particular network of conversations, in the longer term trying to pin meaning down is doomed to failure. It’s precisely because human systems are complex, that what happens is uncertain and words will always change meaning as they are passed on from one conversation to the next.

  6. Hi Tim, I find that it helps to define creativity and invention when defining innovation, as it can answer some of the questions in advance. Here are my definitions:

    – Innovation is the introduction of new products, services or business models that add value to your business

    – Invention is the creation of new assets or technologies that are protected by intellectual property rights

    – Creativity generates new ideas with the potential for differentiated competitive advantage


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