As part of my gift to some of my kickstarter supporters for Mindfire, I offered to write a blog post on the topic of their choice. Here’s the first of many to come.
Dirk Haun asked:
Can you draw a line between what’s considered Innovation and what’s merely considered an Improvement?
I’ve ranted before about jargon in creativity. The fancy language we hear is not the language inventors use. Find the people who actually invented anything and you’ll find the language they use is very simple. Words like prototype, problem, experiment, design and solution. They have a problem in mind and they aim all their energy at solving it. The fancy words (breakthrough, innovation, disruptive, game-changing) mostly come from people who arrive well after the inventing and innovating is done, including innovation consultants. It’s worth asking anyone using the word innovation to define it as often they can’t, which begs the question why are they using it so much then?
Second, deciding what is incremental and what is revolutionary is subjective. There is no universal measurement. From Swan’s perspective, Edison made some minor tweaks to light bulb design. To anyone who was ignorant of Swan’s work, Edison seemed Promethean. To pre-revolution Americans, democracy seemed brilliant and new. To anyone who’d studied the Greeks, they’d think the U.S. was ripping them off (down to the way we styled our monuments in D.C.). To measure an idea, you need to define who it’s being aimed at, as where you aim will change the value of the idea.
Third, small changes can have disproportionately large effects. See Does Size Matter for ideas? (HBR). You don’t necessarily need a big idea to have big changes on an industry or a product. Some very small ideas can have surprising leverage for change.
To directly answer the question, Innovation is largely a word used to describe the scale of the effect on an idea, rather than the idea itself. And since no inventor controls the effect their idea has on the world, innovation is frequently a term than lands on ideas/products after they’re been released into the world, rather than before.
From the widest perspective, all ideas are incremental. Every new idea, no matter how radical, is comprised of previous ideas and concepts, albeit perhaps combined in novel ways. Is the Prius a radical idea? Depends how much you know about the history of automobiles. Different power sources were a big part of the early days of car design, when steam and electricity were contenders.
The most sensible way to evaluate an idea is its potential impact on who it’s specifically being designed for, and what problem it solves for them. If you save someone’s life with an incremental idea, they’ll be just as happy as if you used an innovative one. They don’t care about the label, they care about the effect. As the tragic counterpoint: if you fail to solve their problem with an innovative idea, they’ll be very angry, and then they’ll be very dead.
An incremental change can have a huge effect on a particular customer. If someone only speaks Spanish, and you add support for that language (an incremental improvement) it can have huge positive impact. And by the same token, a radical change to a product can have negative or no effect at all on customers. The mere fact that a new idea introduces change for users, and relearning, may mean the learning costs outweigh any of the benefits provided by the new idea.