Entrepreneur / Innovation / Technology

Six interpretations of innovation

Individuals can have very different- and even opposing- views and beliefs about what constitutes “innovation.” It is possible for this to dramatically affect the impact of a company’s innovation effort and the understanding of how successful it has been. From my own experiences so far I have  observed six interpretations of innovation:

Innovation is about inventing
It’s a common belief that innovation is only about new inventions. This sentiment is implied throughout the Oxford English dictionary’s definition of innovation (note: I have only included relevant definitions. The full description, including mention of the rather novel innovation trunk, can be found here):

1. The introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms.
2. A change made in the nature or fashion of anything; something newly introduced; a novel practice, method, etc.
3. The action of introducing a new product into the market; a product newly brought on to the market.

Although invention is part of innovation, I think that innovators shouldn’t believe their only role is to be inventing. This is discussed further in a previous blog post.

… Or a sidestep
James Gardner argues that companies shouldn’t invest in radical innovation but instead look for “incremental improvements that can be moved sideways and turned into revolutions.” This adds an alternative perspective to the view that innovation is all about completely new inventions, and is exemplified by Apple- a company whose innovation is not in invention but in sidesteps from items that already exist.

Innovation is everything
Innovation is very fashionable at the moment, with everything (every company, every product, every action) and everyone claiming to be innovation or innovative. I quite like this view because it sees the world in a positive light and believes that everything has potential, but also recognise that it has potentially dangerous limitations and downfalls. For example, this viewpoint is often used by organisations to argue against the need for a separate innovation function, and by individuals to protect their bubble of influence.

half-full-glass… Nothing is innovation
As everyone and everything is claiming to be innovative some cynics would argue that innovation is a 20th/ 21st century marketing con, and that the word is too broad and unspecific to be useful. There is undoubtedly an element of truth in this as companies are increasingly using the word “innovation” to market themselves, but I don’t think this is a bad thing. It’s better to have more organisations claiming they’re innovative (even if they’re not) to spur on others to change rather than have no innovation atall.


Innovation is change without the paperwork
This view is popular with two types of people:
cynics  of innovation who think it’s just cutting corners (often “Blockers” who also see innovation as destructive and/ or unnecessary), and people who have a job in innovation but who just want to “do the cool stuff” and don’t see the long term strategy (often a mixture of the “Talkers” and the “Do-ers“). There is a place for “just doing it and asking for forgiveness later,” but unfortunately if innovation is done without any proper processes for a prolonged period it is likely to cause friction, annoy rather than encourage a long term mindset change, and get stopped pretty quickly.

Innovation is “something different that has an impact”
This succinct definition, from Scott Anthony, is one that I really like. Some would argue that it is too broad- particularly as it could be said to cover all of the previous perspectives except “nothing is innovation.” I think that it provides a simple and useful summary, but that being particularly similar to the “Innovation is everything” perspective it should come with a word of warning about organisations and individuals potentially using it as an excuse not to have a dedicated innovation function.

There are certainly more interpretations of innovation than this, but I think these six cover a broad spectrum of the opposing views. If you have experienced others please mention them in the comments- I would love to hear more.


5 thoughts on “Six interpretations of innovation

  1. Hi Kate. I enjoy your perspectives on innovation, and you’ve put your finger on what is a big opportunity or challenge for innovation. It means far too many things to far too many people. When every new product claims to be “innovative” then it becomes difficult to say what innovation “is”. In fact currently everyone simply states that their new product/service/business model is innovative, and without definitive definitions we can either accept the assertion or question it, but it is difficult to refute.

    That’s because we are in the early stages of innovation, what I’ll call the “land rush” stage, when everyone wants to stake a claim. Over time, we’ll see some of these claims tested, and some will prove valid and some won’t, and basic definitions will arise that will allow us to test what is innovative, and what isn’t. For now though, get ready to be inundated with “innovative” products and services.

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  3. Ok post but does not clarify the issuie. Too much focus on how innovation
    is seen or understood by the organisation.
    Tthe question then is what is the difference between innovation and problem
    Much of what is claimed to be innovation is really problem solving
    To be sure there can be innovative techniques and solutions, but
    when most people think they are innovating, espefcially
    in local governm£ent, they are problem solving.
    Innovation has to change something. Just because bi solve a problem does not mean I have innovated. If I solve it and my solution is then
    Used by everyone and it sticks, ie it is not superseded, then you have an innovation,
    Setting up a team to solve a bee problem or creating a partnership is not innovating.
    Creating an iphone application is.

  4. Pingback: Innovation posts of the week: 6 interpretations of innovation | Game-Changer

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