The Best Definition of Innovation

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.]

60 Responses to “The Best Definition of Innovation”

  1. manny

    It’s become just another corporate buzzword in some big companies for many of these folks in high positions. The true innovators are often cast out as not fitting the culture with their risky ideas. Others see this and keep a low profile or are too scared to be the high nail so they cover their butts with getting “buy-in” from everyone else in the hope that they won’t be held personally responsible for failure. I cringe when I hear them mention innovation because, in my experience, the innovation they seek is to find new ways to lay people off and wring more out of the survivors.

  2. Steve

    But then it becomes a game of the definition of “significant.” I’ve been involved debate about what constitutes significance, in a different context. All words are defined by other words, any of which can have a debatable meaning.

    Furthermore, there is the (equally abused) concept of disrupting innovation. Such an innovation may actually be worse than the status quo. But, shifting sideways to a different set of metaphorical train tracks, opens up rooms for future growth past the current plateau.

    1. Scott

      Yes – there is no end to how language can be abused.

      But I’m convinced the word significance is harder to abuse. It’s currently a reserved word you don’t hear often and for that reason alone it has value innovation doesn’t.

      Significance is also a better word operationally, since it demands comparison. Significant compared to what? It implies of quantity of something. Whereas words like innovation rarely seems to have that effect.

    2. Andrew Wellmeyer

      I’ve also felt subject to the abuse of not only words but ideas – every time I watch a political debate. I realize that they are a component of the system, but it still never ceases to amaze me how centered they can be purely on stimulating a mass effect in people. They focus on avoiding concrete ideas and suggestions (anything legitimately informative) because of how susceptible it leaves them to scrutiny. It’s a cowards game, the way that they play it.

      I’ve always associated innovation with the technology or methods that drive society, but that could be because I’m from an engineering background (as well as underexposed to corporate exploits). Assuming this definition, however, I would say that innovation and societal advancement are a similar behavior of two different aspects of civilization, and a movement in one will almost certainly affect the other. I suppose disrupting innovation could be a breakthrough technologically that has an unforeseen or mixed effect on society (nuclear power/weapons). I actually returned to this article for the purpose of sharing this quote, but it conveniently supports my definition as well:

      “Thus, innovation depends on a vibrant community of practitioners and researchers working in community to advance the frontiers of knowledge and practice.”
      – ‘Creating a Culture for Scholarly and Systematic Innovation in Engineering Education’ The American Society for Engineering Education

      It seems like what you’re describing here is something greater than my definition of innovation, Scott. What your describing is something that would transcend corporate pop culture, as well as low-grade politics. A combination of tact and vision.

  3. Baron

    An innovation is simply something that is made new. I agree that the word is horribly abused, but it retains meaning beyond those who abuse it.

    And it hasn’t resorted to drugs or meaningless sex. I think we should support innovation in its attempts to remake itself.

  4. DJ

    I have been in a number of executive level meetings where the word “innovative” has cropped up and, by and large, it seems to mean “Give me a solution that I haven’t thought of and give it to me in the next 30 seconds”. Those who are the least creative seem to believe that creativity can be turned on and turned off at the flick of a switch and that people can create “innovative” solutions at will. If that were the case, why was there the need for the meeting?

  5. Paul Frandano

    Sorry, Scott, but that’s a TERRIBLE definition in its utter lack of specificity and utter open-endedness. “Innovation is significant positive change.” That would make my granddaughter’s drop in temperature, from a scary 103.8 to 98.6 “innovation.” That would make a point drop in unemployment “innovative.” I know you’ve made a career talking about innovation and its mythology. Add to your list “innovation can be credibly described in five words.”

    1. Scott

      I welcome any definitions of any lengths you think are superior

  6. Nate Burgos

    Thanks, Scott, for highlighting this word and its casual adoption. This is particularly evident in job titles of professional networking profiles online, along with “change agent,” “rainmaker,” and others.

  7. Raul

    “Innovation is continually and efficiently developing and delivering break-through solutions by offering higher value to customers, achieving profitable growth for businesses, and gaining competitive advantages in the marketplace.” – Praveen Gupta, (The Innovation Solution). This is a good definition for a business. Basically though, innovation means to do something new or different. It would nice to be “positive” although many innovations may be negative. Generally speaking, innovation should be positive and help improve a product or a process. Invention is different than innovation and the examples used to start this thread are really centered on “invention”. Inventors are necessary a minority in the world while innovators can be all around, once they learn to think they can become innovators!

    1. Scott

      Thanks for offering this. The problem is this is precisely the kind of inflated jargon I recommend people don’t use. This definition uses the word innovation not as a thing (e.g.
      a warp drive is an innovation”), but as an attitude, which is very strange.

      It also terms “high value to customers” as the means for creating breakthrough [ideas] which doesn’t make much sense. High value is something the idea provides, and better ideas provide more value.

      Just run through the inflated and conflicting terms included in that definition:

      – Continual
      – Efficient
      – Breakthrough
      – High Value
      – Profitable
      – Competitive Advantage

      It’s rare enough for any company to create a single breakthrough in its market in its lifetime, much less two. What company has ever continually broken through anything? Continual means non-stop. Even Apple or Google or whoever you think might qualify does regular minor releases of products that fix issues. Even Apple and Google have had major product failures.

      Efficiency runs counter to experimentation, which is required to develop new ideas. You can’t be efficient and make big bets at the same time.

      If you take the words in that definition seriously no company in history qualifies.

      1. Jairaj

        This is very interesting. I think Scott and Raul both make solid arguments. Even Roger’s definition is noteworthy. Here’s my point of view –

        yes, innovation is over used and abused. but any linguist would tell you that in all languages, some words are abused from time to time and these words come and go. so let’s not worry about that. what matters is how can we get more people to get beyond the use of the word to actually start practising it in what they do.

        that brings me to my next point – innovation, while different from creativity, however like creativity is something every brain is capable of, even those that are different. invention is also different from innovation, and i like to believe that inventions can be good or bad for eg the light bulb or nuclear weapons, but creativity and innovation (to me) implies a positivity embedded within it. by nature, I don’t think any innovation is bad, some may be better than others.

        now, if i have to, i usually resort to the simplest definition i have come up with yet, not so different from Steve’s – Innovation is a New and Better Idea. but i also try to back it up with some examples from different extremes.

        by this definition – democracy is an innovation and so is triple bottom line management, the assembly line, the post-it note, all inventions from all time (everything from the first tools and weapons of early man and the new gadget that just hit the market while you were reading this), even man-made fire by a specific use of flintstones and all philosophies, music and languages is innovation. i can go on but you get the point.

        I find it easier this way to get the other person give up a point of view which is too narrow, too complicated, too fluffy or just plain incorrect and begin to see the potential of what innovation can do for our future. and i think these types of ideas deserve the title of innovation, and those who can see it this way, are not likely to disrespect the word because we understand the greater meaning.

        hope some of you will agree.

        1. Maynard Clouter

          Your inclusion of the word “ideas” is important in this context. It is obvious to me that every significant, or at least major, advance that has ever been made in the field of basic sciences should be encompassed by this word. Innovation seems to have been adopted as the exclusive domain of engineering and technology. This is simply wrong. Should not the Theory of Relativity be regarded as an innovation?

  8. Roger Dennis

    I admire the desire to aim for brevity have thought about the definition of innovation for a long time. The end result is that my definition is:

    “Creativity that adds value.”

    After reading your post, I think it could be modified to:

    “Creativity that adds significant value.”

  9. Mike

    I understand your perspective/displeasure with its misuse/overuse. I do believe that it’s morphed in HR parlance to indicate a postion that is primarily concerned with new/different product development, coupled with a keen awareness of emerging trends/opportunities. While this may not fit the classic definition of true “innovation”, it’s really a signal to a workplace that “we have a culture that values innovation” or “we have a keen awareness of emerging trends/opportunities in our particular field, and here’s proof!”

  10. Timothy Knox

    This reminds me of something Terry Pratchett wrote in “Going Postal.” The villain of the piece had just published a vision and mission statement in the paper, when our hero saw it. His reaction:

    Like an apprentice staring at the work of a master, Moist read Reacher Gilt’s words on the still-damp newspaper. It was garbage, but it had been cooked by an expert. You had to admire the way perfectly innocent words were mugged, ravished, stripped of all true meaning and decency and then sent to walk the gutter for Reacher Gilt, although ‘synergistically’ had probably been a whore from the start.

    I think innovation is probably in the same category as synergistically.

  11. Rafael Caraballo

    I remember a definition that – I believe – came from the British Innovation Council or similar institution, that stated ” Innovation is the process that transforms ideas into commercial value”. I believe it’s wide scoped in the proper sense – “process” whatever it may be – and focused in the right path “commercial value”

  12. Kerry

    I have a love/hate relationship with the word “innovation,” just like I do “design thinking” and a host of other buzzwords. The website makes me laugh. And it makes me cry, because I find myself having to use these buzzwords to signal an intentional shift towards a new mindset, process, or method that will generate the “significant positive change.”

    As for people who use the term innovation in empty buzzword fashion, you can usually suss them out pretty quickly. When I hear “Director of Innovation,” I cautiously listen to see if there’s anything real or substantive there.

    I’ve borrowed a defintion of “innovation” from The Other Side of Innovation – The Execution Problem.

    “Innovation is a project that’s new to you and has an uncertain outcome.”

    After I explicitly tell colleagues that this is what innovation is in our context, I then tell tell them that it means we will be using methodologies that help manage that uncertain outcome. I don’t specify the positive/negative/incremental nature of the outcome, because I can’t guarantee it at the outset. Then I introduce them to the concepts of sense-making, problem-framing, prototyping, iteration – all of which help you incrementally find your way to that positive outcome or change that you might not have been able to predict at the start.

    If I were to use the definition “innovation is significant positive change,” and the purpose of that definition was to describe an outcome (so as to decide whether to put the stamp of approval adjective “innovative” next to it), I suppose that would be fine.

    But I need a word that helps me signal that we’re about to start on a journey that’s different from what you’re used to, there’s a high probability of failure because we can’t predict what success looks like our our context, and we can do some things to mitigate the harmful effects of that failure, and to ensure that we’ll learn from it and move on.

    If I used the “significant positive outcome” definition, I would probably be told I couldn’t start on something innovative unless I knew that significant positive change would result. Or perhaps I might be able to use it to signal a stop effort if it’s clear that a significant positive outcome won’t happen.

    But mainly, I need a word or phrase to help my colleagues initiate a process that’s not regular, ongoing operations. It signals that we’re about to get uncomfortable, and get ready uncover or iterate your way to that significant positive change, because you don’t always know what it will be at the outset.

  13. Gerald Story

    to innovate is to create something new, something significantly different.

  14. Syed Kamil

    Innovation = change. Just do it and see what happens…. it might work, it might be a flop… who knows? Would it create significant impact….. maybe or maybe not, perhaps a ripple and unnoticed or it could become a monster tsunami and transforms everything. Positive? Hopefully or yet again it could turn negative in unintended or unforeseen ways. Attempting to manage innovation or standardizing innovation actually kills the very soul of innovation – creativity and testing the boundaries of “norms” or “limits”. Just let the ideas flow and try it – that’s innovation. Do you dare do it?

    1. jim

      So, by this definition, if I throw a pebble into a pond, and in so doing cause the water’s surface to shift, splash and modulate, then my disrupting act is innovative?

  15. Paul

    Be careful, Innovation does not have to be “significant” (in that it couold be revolutionary or evolutionary) it just has to add value. I beleive we can all innovate every day (and some people can make a living off it through titles, or even books), this is continuous improvement, turning ideas into value.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I think it does have to be significant – otherwise it’s mostly insignificant, which makes the word meaningless. Which is my point. To call everything wonderful destroys the meaning of the word wonderful.

      Was your comment innovative? is this reply? Is the letter X? No, no and no.

  16. Phil Simon

    I feel the same way about the word platform. It gets bastardized routinely. Funny how we’ve both written books about important subjects yet barely use the word. #writerscurse

  17. Sergio de Oliveira

    Describing innovation as an incremental improvement only describes 50% of what innovation is really about and makes you focus on the type of innovation which doesn’t have more of the fundamental impact innovation can deliver. As Christensen spelled out in the Innovator’s Dilemma, you can create disruptive and sustaining innovations.

    As a corporation who wants to stay relevant in the face of increasing competition, I would focus on disruptive innovations over sustaining. Sustaining innovations, are by definition unsustainable (pun intended) as eventually you will outpace your customer base’s needs and paint a nice big target on your back for the guys who actually focus on disruptive innovation.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Not sure if you’re trolling me or not. I’ll assume no :)

      The problem with management-speak about innovation, which your comment falls into, is the presumption there is a shelf somewhere that you can purchase whatever kind of innovation you want. Giving “disruptive innovation” a name doesn’t mean anything about your ability to do it – most people who try fail no matter what books they read. Or how well they’ve done in the past.

      The management strategy is not the hard part. Having a great idea doesn’t mean you can build it. And having built it doesn’t mean you can market it. And having marketed it, doesn’t mean you can profit from it enough to justify it as a strategy. And this is precisely the trap with falling in love with fancy words like Christensen uses: they distract you from the hard and likely improbable parts of competing on the merit of new ideas.

  18. Lorraine Hart

    Because all of this definition stuff for word like innovation is so linked to different perspectives and purpose for the people using them I find it useful to think about innovation (and a whole bunch of other words) in terms of its opposite (for me) which is stasis. Then the issues of significance, positive or negative change/progress become secondary because one cannot alter the fact that change is a question of individual or organisational perspective on value (whether monetary, political, utility or culture)

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thinking in opposites is a great notion. That’s part of my complaint perhaps – there isn’t much thinking about these words are all.

  19. Eric

    Scott, I am curious about your thoughts on innovation in a military context. The US military is infamous for adopting and abusing all manner corporate lingo, and then turning them into acronyms. Innovation is near the top of the current hit list. Unfortunately, we do not have a good (dare I say doctrinal) definition. Lots of conflation with terms like agility, adaptability, improvisation, invention, creativity, etc.
    I am stewing on your definition. Many other definitions talk about creating new value, which tends to ring hollow in the military, where we value effectiveness over efficiency.
    Any thoughts?

    1. Scott Berkun

      I’m doubtful the definitions matter much in that as long as there is a clear problem to solve, the benefits/drawbacks of any invention (or idea) can be measured in those terms. For the military in particular there are often very clear problems to solve, or technological advantages to want to achieve.

      There’s a strong argument that the history of military inventions is one of the most inventive in history, as it’s one of the longest running tech “arms race” that we’ve ever had a species. In terms of answering your question there might be lessons there: when Gatling invented his machine gun, I doubt he worried what language he used or what definition of innovation he had. Instead he had a clear problem to solve and a clear list of people he needed to convince that he’d solved it.

      I hope that’s not an end-run around your question! :)

      1. Eric

        Thanks, Scott. I appreciate the response. I like the focus on solving problems.

      2. jim

        I think you mean Gatling.

  20. Subbu Mahadevan

    Could we say: It means –
    Meaningfully unique. It could be evolutionary or revolutionary.

  21. jim

    Great exchange of ideas. Very thought provoking.

    While we may not arrive at a consensus regarding a universally accepted definition, perhaps we can all agree that the very concept of “innovation” represent a social construction invented by hegemonistic cultures (whether consciously or not) to assert their pedagogical superiority over those of less intellect. It’s a blatant attempt to obfuscate a common definition. Their hubris has created a self fulfilling prophecy whereby the Innovators become the only ones qualified to innovate. Thus contributing to the creation of the Office of Innovation.

    Oh… how truly cathartic.

  22. Jivansutra Navachar

    Professional opinion on innovation can vary, from a simple statement of a solution that adds value for customers to something more complex and specified for a certain organization. I like to view innovation from a consumers standpoint.



  1. […] Scott Berkun: Innovation is significant positive change. This is a high bar, and it should be. What does significant mean? I’d start with the invention of the light bulb, constitutional governments, wireless radio and maybe web browsers. 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. (#) […]

  2. […] Scott Berkun: Innovation is significant positive change. This is a high bar, and it should be. What does significant mean? I’d start with the invention of the light bulb, constitutional governments, wireless radio and maybe web browsers. 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. (#) […]

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