For years I’ve studied use and abuse of the word innovation. In the business world, it’s often used as a empty filler word, without meaningful intent. You can test this by simply asking someone using the word: what does innovation mean? Rarely will they have an answer, which is a good sign it has become a nonsense word. I’ve complained about this, which leads to people ask me to do more than complain, and to offer a definition.
I generally recommend people don’t use the word at all when working. Use more thoughtful words instead. Most importantly, simply dedicate yourself to solving problems. It’s solving problems that matters. Instead of saying “our goal is innovation”, which is vague, say “our goal is to solve THIS problem for THESE people”, or admit that your first aim is to decide which problems you’re going to solve and for whom.
If you must use the word, here is the best definition: Innovation is significant positive change. It’s a result. It’s an outcome. It’s something you work towards achieving on a project. If you are successful at solving important problems, peers you respect will call your work innovative and you an innovator. Let them choose the word.
This is a high bar, and it should be. To call every change you make in your work an innovation belittles the possible scale of progress. The act of creating something, even if it solves a problem, should perhaps still not be considered an innovation until it is adopted by other people (see Innovation vs. Invention). Until then, it’s just an invention with the potential to be an innovation. If you are an engineer, a designer or a start-up founder, inventing things is simply your job.
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 realize they really just mean one of these). And once they admit this, that’s when you offer the definition above.
[Note: I can’t claim that I came up with this definition. I’ve read dozens of books on the history of invention and progress that influenced me before ever realizing an improved definition was necessary. Suggested sources are welcome.]