As a popular buzzword, innovation has accumulated serious mileage over the years. It has made its way out of the garages of Silicon Valley and into the boardrooms of nearly every modern employment sector (industry, government, academics), and even into our everyday conversations. Interestingly, the word is also accompanied by a lack of consensus on its meaning.
One simple definition of innovation is: “the introduction of something new.” However, if we examine a few examples of how the word is being employed, it becomes clear this is not the operational definition:
“Innovation is the new currency in today’s Idea Economy.” 1
“Everybody's innovating, because any change is innovation.” 2
“There are many skeptics about the value of incremental innovation...” 3
“Disruptive innovation is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.” 4
"CEO prescribes innovation for all that ails big pharma" 5
"Forbes Asks CMOs: What's Your Innovation Agenda?" [video] 6
And there are many more examples to be found, each with a different shade of meaning. Unlike “innovation”, we don’t see the same confusion and broad use of other related “i”-words: inspiration, ideation, invention, and improvement.
Perhaps the ambiguity around the word innovation results precisely because it represents a composite and is derived from these other “i”-words. If innovation is the introduction of something new, how did this new thing come about? There was probably an initial inspiration that lead to more formalized ideation and a selection of the best ideas. When the refined idea becomes a product, we have an invention. Is invention the same as innovation? Thousands of inventions come through the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) every year, a substantial number of which never make it to market. Sometimes old inventions are used in new ways or in combination with other products such that the process or product is actually new. Perhaps the new application of an old invention or a combination of inventions, when there is value derived from it, is a place we can land for thinking about innovation.
What, then, separates an innovation from an improvement?7 Both speak to some kind of change, but the difference is in the magnitude. Improvement is incremental change. Innovation is on a larger scale. Perhaps innovation is transformational change.
“Disruptive innovation” is a popular phrase coined by Clayton Christenson8 in the mid-1990’s when new IT products were fast changing the way we live and work. There was a true transformative change through the production and use of new digital technologies. While innovation was becoming the new industry standard, “disruptive innovation” arose as a term for identifying the truly innovative individuals and companies. Perhaps the rise in use of “disruption” as a qualifier for innovation is a sign of how truly transformative the change experienced at that time really was.
So where does the innovation narrative go from here? Forcing the word into a tidy corner to meet our preferences is likely not our best bet. We can consider using the word seldomly, or not at all, as some have argued 9 10. Or we can be analytical and ask the following questions to assess whether an invention is also an innovation: (1) Did it become a commercial product? (2) How widely used has a new product become? (3) How much value is derived from its application? An innovation should score high on all three.
How we choose to talk about innovation and the significance we place on it is important. Beyond an intellectual exercise or collegial banter, this word has been assigned some hefty responsibilities. Governments and industries around the world invest billions of dollars on research and development every year in hopes of launching the next great innovation to address unmet societal needs.11
One thing seems clear: the innovation narrative is here to stay. Although, we may never know where it will take us and may only appreciate its value in hindsight, much like the innovations themselves.
A note on additional sources: Examples of innovation in government - White House 12 13, Health & Human Services (HHS) 14, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) 15, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) 16, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) 17; in academia - Stanford 18, Harvard i-Lab 19, and Beta Boston's coverage of entrepreneurship at Boston-area universities 20. Influential individuals, some referenced directly or hyperlinked above - Clayton Christenson 21, Scott Berkun 22, Jay Walker 23, Stefan Lindegaard 24. The word cloud from the accompanying image was created by pooling quotes on innovation by famous figures throughout history representing industry, government and academia, compiled by BrainyQuote.