What do we talk about when we talk about innovation?

When I typed “definition of innovation” into Google the other day, it returned 1,710,000,000 replies, which means absolutely nothing, of course, raising the question why the arguably most influential company on earth has been consistently feeding us with this useless piece of data for so many years. So, I promise to use this very same opening sentence in a future post (repurposing, saving on first-sentence-emissions) about some common popular fallacies around indicators and measurement. But, for the sake of our current topic, the billions mentioned above do give something of an indication of the fact that a lot of words have been spent in attempts to define innovation, and indeed, a quick glance at Wikipedia’s contribution to the subject brings up mentions of various researchers who have compiled lists of 40, 60 or many dozen definitions.

I am going to go out on a limb here and claim that all the definitions that I have seen very much miss the mark, and that we at SIT have been using a simple definition that doesn’t, which I will present to you below. To assess the usefulness of a definition we should start by asking ourselves what we actually expect from one, assuming that “we” are not theoreticians who simply wish to publish a paper on the subject. A useful definition of innovation would allow us to, among other objectives:

  1. Decide if an activity or its result should be considered innovative;
  2. Measure our organization’s “innovation pulse”;
  3. Assess the success of our efforts to become more innovative, or drive our organization in this direction;
  4. Re-direct efforts invested in innovation that seem not to be achieving the desired results.

These are some of the first definitions you will find by googling:

  • Wikipedia: Innovation is the practical implementation of ideas that result in the introduction of new goods or services or improvement in offering goods or services.
  • ISO TC 279 on innovation management proposes in the standards, ISO 56000:2020 [2] to define innovation as “a new or changed entity creating or redistributing value”.
  • Based on their survey, Baragheh et al. attempted to formulate a multidisciplinary definition and arrived at the following: “Innovation is the multi-stage process whereby organizations transform ideas into new/improved products, service or processes, in order to advance, compete and differentiate themselves successfully in their marketplace”
  • Peter Drucker (yes, even the great PD can get things wrong, apparently – A.L.) wrote: Innovation is the specific function of entrepreneurship, whether in an existing business, a public service institution, or a new venture started by a lone individual in the family kitchen. It is the means by which the entrepreneur either creates new wealth-producing resources or endows existing resources with enhanced potential for creating wealth.

Why are all these definitions inadequate? Each has its particular deficiencies, but they also share a common defect. They all suffer, to a varying extent, from a series of nested biases:

A bias in favor of organizations —————> rather than human endeavors in general, individuals, families

Within organizations, a bias in favor of businesses ————–> versus communities, governments, criminal, educational

Within businesses ———————> in favor of products, rather than services

Within products ——————–> in favor of technological products

Within technological products ——————–> in favor of hi-tech

Within hi-tech ————————-> in favor of R&D

 

So, if you are an engineer in a hi-tech startup developing a product with the goal of entering the market and making money – plenty of these definitions can plausibly describe what you are doing or aiming to do. On the other hand, none of them is adequate for capturing or evaluating, for example, the following activities, in descending order of relevance (all of them based on personal experience in my role as innovation consultant and facilitator):

  1. A marketer in the same startup, rethinking their go-to-market strategy;
  2. The startup’s CFO, planning her presentation to a potential investor;
  3. The CEO, dealing with her difficulty in communicating a pivot in strategy to the company’s employees;
  4. All the above-mentioned functions in a traditional industry, manufacturing wooden furniture, for example;
  5. A project manager in an NGO, searching for a new way to effectively distribute contraceptives in rural India;
  6. An ad-hoc collective of activists figuring out their next steps in an equal-rights campaign on the streets of a large city;
  7. An ex-con trying to crack the code of a safe (this one I refused to collaborate on);
  8. A father trying not to repeat his regular response, that has obviously not been working too well, to his teenage daughter (this one was pro-bono, auto-pro-bono).

Try any of the definitions from the googled results on any of the items on this list and you will immediately note how increasingly inadequate they sound as you advance through the examples. Applying the same logic, you can easily imagine myriad additional examples excluded by the standard definitions, rendering the definitions useless for what are probably 90% of human activities that could, in principle, be innovative. Consider, however, the following definition, formulated by us at SIT and refined through years of use:

To innovate is to think and act differently to achieve your goals.

Let’s zoom into each of the four key elements of the definition, in turn.

  1. Innovation is first and foremost the fruit of a cognitive, thinking process. It requires conditions, both emotional and material, but the first and often-overlooked condition is supplying people with time to think. “Think”, not as in “how and what do I quickly answer to my boss’s complaint?” or “what 15 things do I need to do today and how the hell will I make time for them all?”, but “think” as in taking time off from one’s incessant race to reflect on it from above or from the side.
  2. Whatever you are doing, you’re not innovating if it doesn’t translate into action. Beware the shiny PPT presentation of elaborate organizational flowcharts describing “our new innovation process”: seek concrete actions leading to implementation.
  3. One of our key rallying cries is: Don’t do innovation – rather, innovate in what you do. Innovation is a means and not an end in itself, and therefore, an action can be considered to be innovation only inasmuch as it supports or accelerates your efforts to achieve one or more of your goals. Innovation leaders, units and consultants often flip this causal relationship and act as if innovating is the goal. This is only natural since it actually is the goal – for them. But an organization needs to remember that actions and initiatives can only count as innovations when they promote the organization’s objectives. This is true also of individuals or teams. Note that there is nothing in this definition that favors “value for the market” or the role of customers or any of the corporate-speak business-oriented language. If your goals pertain to the realm of business, then innovation should lead to business results. If your goal is, say, happiness then, for you, an action is innovative if – in addition to the other three characteristics mentioned in the definition – it increases happiness.
  4. Many actions require thinking and promote the goals of an individual or organization and yet it would not be useful or productive to consider them to be examples of innovation. In fact, most of what members of an organization routinely do falls into this category. Doing your job properly, improving your processes, using Quality tools, all these important and commendable activities can contribute much to an organization, and yet we would still not wish to define them as innovative. The last and crucial ingredient in our definition, therefore, is that your thinking-based and goal-promoting action must stem from thinking differently. This, of course, begs the question of what will be considered as different enough to count. We offer a simple and powerful answer: thinking differently means breaking one or more of your Cognitive Fixednesses.

So, introducing this concept into our definition we get:

You innovate when you think and act in a way that breaks your fixedness leading you to achieve your goals.

This working definition lends itself to numerous practical applications. It can, for example, be immediately translated into a useful pair of criteria when you are asked to approve submissions of ideas or achievements to an internal innovation competition in an organization. Those who submit an entry are asked to demonstrate:

  1. The impact of their project (potential impact if the competition is among ideas; measured impact if, as we prefer, prizes go to implemented projects rather than ideas);
  2. Which fixedness(es) had to be broken in order to come up with and/or implement their idea.

These two criteria, when applied jointly, easily filter out hairbrained schemes without demonstrable results (or the potential thereof) and on the other hand embrace candidates from any type of activity in the organization that supports its strategy and goals, without bestowing preference to R&D or other usual suspects. Our definition is not perfect, of course: definitions are notoriously elusive and slippery, and tend to circularity. One way of assessing a definition’s value is by evaluating to what extent it captures all phenomena one wishes to include under a term and how effectively it excludes those one doesn’t. The definition presented here performs well on both counts, I believe, including a very wide range of activities versus the organization-business-product-technologically biased alternatives. It also helps filter out useful but non-innovative activities and even points to a practical direction for those who wish to nudge their current activities towards a more innovative path.

A crucial element in making this definition operational is obviously a clear and communicable understanding of the concept of FIXEDNESS. In future posts, we will delve deeper into this concept, so central to the very essence of innovation.

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