For years I’ve studied use and abuse of the word innovation. Mostly it’s used as a filler word, without meaningful intent. I’ve complained about this for years, which naturally leads to people asking me to stop whining and offer a definition.
I generally recommend people don’t use the word. It’s rarely helpful. At best it’s something people should say about you or your work, not something you say about yourself. Instead dedicate yourself to solving problems since that’s what most people who earn the title innovator were trying to do.
But if you must use it, here is the best definition: Innovation is significant positive change.
This is a high bar, and it should be. To call every little change you make in your work an innovation belittles the possible scale of progress. Innovation is also best thought of as an outcome, not an action (see Innovation vs. Invention).
What does significant mean? I’d start with the invention of the light bulb, constitutional governments, wireless radio and the Internet. Perhaps you could say significant is a 30% or more improvement in something, like the speed of an engine or the power of a battery. If you know the history of your profession you know the big positive changes people made over the last 50 years, giving you perspective on the scale of brilliance you need to have to be worthy of that word.
But if you use word lightly, or frequently, you show hubris in the present and ignorance of the past. Sayings like “we innovate every day”, “chief innovator” or “innovation pipeline” are inflations. They’re popular, but misguided. Calling a thing an innovation doesn’t make it so. It’s just a word and words are free to be abused. If you think about it, it’s easy to separate mere improvements from something worthy of grander praise.
The best thing to ask anyone who uses the word innovation is: what do you mean when you say that?
Most of the time people have no idea what they mean. Or they mean they’re doing something they do most days. And once they admit this, that’s when you offer the definition above.