[Post updated: August 2015. Also see the best definition of innovation]
The word innovation is used in so many different ways I’ve categorized them here. As an expert on creativity I will put these common uses in context below.
Innovation is commonly used to mean:
- A New idea: Innovative = creative thinking. It doesn’t have to necessarily be a good idea, or something that can be made into a product, just interesting, different or creative.
- A New + Good idea: an innovation has to be new, but also good or better than previous things in some way. Something can be innovative in concept, before it’s a product or a tangible, usable thing.
- A kind of product: Some people separate ideas from innovations and they draw the line at products. To be an innovation means you not only have an idea, but successfully deliver it to the world as a product. It’s not an innovation if it isn’t out in the world in someones service. So you can take someone else’s ideas, and if you’re the first to make a product out of them, you’re an innovator (e.g. Edison and the lightbulb, Apple and the iPod).
- A kind of successful product: Some business books mark new ideas that fail commercially as below the innovation bar. So the Apple Newton and The Apple Lisa, wouldn’t qualify as they were commercial failures. But the Macintosh and the iPod qualify as innovations.
- Something that is cool or perceived as cool. Often this is based on novelty, in that the idea seems new. But as the people making this judgement often aren’t experts in the history of a particular kind of idea, they’re often falsely perceiving an idea as novel.
The mere fact that the word is commonly used to mean so many different things means it’s a poor word to use. Odds are high that if you use it to mean one thing, the person listening to you will think you mean something else.
Innovation vs. Invention:
Some academics define invention as a specific creation, but innovation as the effect the creation has on an industry or culture. So a product can be an invention, but not an innovation, unless it has a profound impact on the world. This is humbler way to use the word as it is based on the impact of your invention, rather than the creation of the invention itself.
Things get even messier when people talk of innovative organizations (another popular trend). Here, innovation means one of three things:
- Results: An innovative organization is one that produces innovations (whichever definition you pick from the above). Think of research labs or teams of people directed to create new products.
- Processes: It’s not the results that are necessarily innovative, but the way the group goes about doing it’s work is. So a bank might still use U.S. currency and offer loans, but the way they organize or make decisions is creative, new or different. Of course it is possible to have both innovative processes and results (e.g. IDEO).
- Strategies: Many books aimed at executives like Seeing what’s next and Dealing with Darwin offer ways to think about business and beat competitors where it’s the strategy that has innovative elements. But here it’s hard to discern between a good strategy, an effective strategy, and one you simply haven’t heard of before.
What does all this mean?
A great place to start is to ask: when in the history of business has there been a time when innovation wasn’t important? Never. There has always been competition and greater rewards for people who could execute on better ideas for things. If you agree, then why has the term, as fragmented as it has become, grown so popular? and what does this means for popular perception of what innovation is, and how it happens? And did I miss any common uses of the word innovation?