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How to Define Innovation

How to Define Innovation

| On 01, Jan 2010

Message: 466
Posted by: Cheryl
Posted on: Tuesday, 10th April 2007

My company is caught up in all the hype around innovation. “We need to be more innovative,” “Look at company XYZ and their innovative new product,” etc.

The problem is that nobody can clearly define innovation for me. Some say it's “innovative solutions,” but I think that's just problem solving — and a host of problem solving methodologies already exist (such as DMAIC, TOC, PDCA, etc.). So I don't buy that innovation means innovative solutions.

And I don't think that innovation means evolution, as I've read and agree with on the commentary on this site. Making a smaller phone does not make the new phone innovative.

So what is innovation? PLEASE!

Message: 468
Posted by: InnovationColorado
Posted on: Wednesday, 11th April 2007


Great question — I believe it depends on what kind of “eyeglasses” you are wearing

If you are a governmental entity, you may define innovation as “process that transfers ideas through business activity into saleable goods, processes and services”:

If your glasses are from a technology organization, you may define innovation as “a process which leads to improved engineering, technology, methods, state of mind and organization”

If you wear you eyeglasses at an educational “think tank”, you may find that: ” … there was no consensus about the concept of innovation; some participants see innovation as a step-by-step improvement building on existing technologies while others thought of innovation as a radical shift of doing things. Others included both notions in the definition of innovation in order to do justice to incremental improvements. Participants also agreed that radical change with the aim of improving existing practices is difficult to implement at school level. Schools are still traditional and when introducing innovation in schools this should be done step by step. … “

… so, innovation can have very localized definitions. (!!!) 

It is likely that the word will continue to be bandied about without a universally-accepted definition. In this context, just like “All Politics Is Local” (as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives once noted), is it not also possible that “All Innovation is Local”?  Perhaps the local definition of “innovation” in your own organization is all that really matters.  Can your organization settle on a single set of eyeglasses from which to view the topic of innovation?

It is good that your organization is starting to talk about innovation, but not very productive that they seem to have widely differing and/or vague definitions.

Here is the key item to help them be more productive: can you use their interest to engage them and the help them settle on what they want to do to improve the organization?

Best regards,


Message: 471
Posted by: Jane Snyder
Posted on: Thursday, 12th April 2007

One way to think about it might be: innovation is putting creative thought to practical use (as opposed to just having creativity for the sake of creativity). So, the goal would be turn creative business ideas into practical, on-strategy ideas for your business. Sometimes those ideas will be small, incremental line extensions or modifications. Sometimes they will be big game-changing ideas. Try setting goals to have both every year–maybe 1 big game-changing innovation every year, and several smaller ones. Keep in mind that with this definition, the ideas can be in the realm of new products but also other things: new marketing ideas, cost-cutting ideas, partnership ideas…

Jane Snyder

The Growth Engine Company

Message: 472
Posted by: Mike Carnell
Posted on: Friday, 13th April 2007


I want to be clear that I am not an innovation guru by any means but I don't think your question requires one. We went through the first Six Sigma surge in the mid to late 90's because a bunch of people wanted “to be like Jack.” They were doing exactly what you are speaking about – using the word so that they sound very cutting edge. We have seen it frequently with terms like “white spaces,” “synergy,” “reengineering,” etc. I have always believed that if you could count frequency of the use of buzz words by a person and then could measure superficiality one would predict the other. Sorry for the digression.

Regardless of what the outside world defines as “innovation” (without a doubt from an earlier post I went through – you are not going to get anyone stepping up and saying this is the definitive answer) your company should have some long term goal/objective/vision. That vision may include “new products” or itierating current products or something of that nature. Figure out where the Leadership has their head or where they don't. That only leaves you with the operational level that says “how do I get there?” With the “waring camps” around innovation and all the ambiguous nonsense that is being kicked around in the name of innovation you can cover whatever you do with something so do what gets you where you need to go.

At the end of the day your leadership is going to judge your success based on how well you deliver the things that move them in the direction they want to go. They reward results. You figure out the path and set it so it ends up where they want to go and nobody will question your methodology. There is one thing you can count on – if you have the best definition in the world, if you have the best defined innovation process, if you have the best TRIZ practitioners, if you have the most acclaimed Chief Innovation Officer, if you have the right number of TRIZ experts, etc and no results – you will be considered a failure and will be traded for a player to be named in the future.

Just my opinion.

Message: 473
Posted by: Cheryl
Posted on: Friday, 13th April 2007

Hi Mike,

You said some interesting stuff: “At the end of the day your leadership is going to judge your success based on how well you deliver the things that move them in the direction they want to go. They reward results…[with] no results – you will be considered a failure and will be traded for a player to be named in the future.”

So here's my thinking:

  • What we want = results
  • What does that look like for the busienss = $ (revenue or profit)
  • How best to increase revenue or profits = new products

What are the right new products that will delight customers? Do we need to do VOC to attain this, or are the best new products the ones that the customer doesn't even know they want? (Like a new mop that uses disposable pads.)

What methodology should we use to come up with these new products?

Am I thinking about this the wrong way? It starting to sound like DFSS can solve the problem if we know what we want to develop…


Message: 474
Posted by: Cheryl
Posted on: Friday, 13th April 2007

Hi IC,

I think you're right in that local definitions are occuring. But I don't think that's right. I don't think that there should be local definitions. People *do* have different opinions about politics and whether we should spend more money on healthcare or education (as an example), but I don't believe that there should be differing definitions of innovation. I think it's purely the result of someone not providing a convincing enough argument.

What do you think about my thoughts here:

Thanks for the thoughts,

Message: 475
Posted by: Cheryl
Posted on: Friday, 13th April 2007

Hi Jane,

So this might be like Google giving every employee 5 hours per week to work on anything they want to, right? By giving employees the time to work on things that might be a great idea, but have little support or management buy-in, they may incubate the next “killer”[fill in the blank: application|process|product|etc.] ?

I love the idea that someone does this, but could my company do this? Definitely not. Would any of the Fortune 1000 companies do this? Not on a enterprise-wide basis. Am I wrong? It's just too much of a productivity loss for the sake of being “creative.” Like Mike Carnell said (lower in this thread), if there are no results pretty quickly then someone's going to not be working there much longer — and it's probably the person who came up with the idea to take 5 hours per week to focus on creative thought.

What do you think?


Message: 477
Posted by: Mike Carnell
Posted on: Saturday, 14th April 2007


I am going to give you my opinion – it is worth what you are paying for it.

You run parallel paths. If you look at what Motorola did with pagers and cell phones it is an interesting story. We became the best pager in the world. We owned a larger and larger share of a dieing market. Some might believe that is a poor strategy but it was a great bridge while we developed cell phones. In the beginning we were the largest player in cell phones as well. Eventually the decision to stay with analog when the data said that the world wanted digital damaged our position in the market.

I am assuming you are in a market that has a demand. That demand in all likelyhood will not just disappear. The question for that market will probably be an analysis of the current market trends coupled with VOC. You have to decide how you want to play in that market. How do you optimize your position in the current market or do you want to? That means you itierate your current product. You have to move fast and deliver good quality.

Your example of a mop. As a relatively new bachelor mopping the floor is a crappy job but the have that one with the bottle that sqirts stuff infront of the mop when you squeeze the trigger. Great idea. My cleaning person loves it. Innovation only takes so far.

Clean sheet of paper innovation is a different deal. You are correct that VOC frequently doesn't mean much when you are trying to figure out what the customers want, in terms of a product, since they haven't imagined it yet. I think part of what Motorola did right was they defined themselves as being in the communications business as opposed to being in the pager bussiness, cell phone business, radio business, etc. If we would have stayed with the vision of the pager business then we would have never gotten to the point of being able to talk to each other. Just think about the paradigm shift we went through with cell phones. You never actually wanted to call a place – you wanted to call a person but you called a place (where the phone was) and saw if the person was there. Someone had to say “lets look at what our customers are actually trying to accomplish.” They wanted to call a person most frequently and if you remember the Motorola brick when they first came out – you had to want to call them badly to carry that thing.

I think for the clean sheet of paper stuff you have to look at what function the customer wants to accomplish in a very generic sense (do some reading on a thing called an ethnology – part of archeology/anthropology). Maybe that is the key – hire someone who has a good track record at writing ethnologies to do the same type of study around your product and the people who use it. At the risk of being accused discriminatory thinking get some youg people without a bunch of “experience” (read baggage) and see how they solve the problem from the ethnology.

I would keep the marketing people involved constantly. That should be the best link to the customer.

Making it profitable isn't all that difficult once you get a concept – a couple good Black Belts should be able to do that for you. If it is a problem please contact me at

Just my opinion.

Good luck

Message: 479
Posted by: Jane Snyder
Posted on: Monday, 16th April 2007


I'm not sure the 5-hrs a week technique is a good way to go–unless you have a good process for capturing the ideas and following up on them you run the risk of losing them. At my company, we prefer to use 1-2 day focused ideation sessions to stimulate ideas, and then follow up with consumer research to develop the ideas and get input on them from consumers. We typically find that we generate a batch of great ideas at the ideation session and then have plenty of new ideas in the new product development pipeline to work on for awhile. Obviously, not all come to fruition, but then we simply start the ideation session/customer research process again.

You may consider trying something along those lines.

Jane Snyder

Message: 481
Posted by: Mike Carnell
Posted on: Monday, 16th April 2007


The 5 hours a week sounds good when you read about Google (while they are doing well the test is what happens to that time when they get some serious competition) and magazines like Fast Company make a big deal out of this. It has a lot of emotional appeal to the Yuppie set that doesn't have any skin in the game.

This is a crap shoot at best – for every 8 people you will be allowing unstructured “innovation” (assuming that they are allowed to work on anything they want). I think you will find the common thread in a lot of the writing around innovation right now promotes the idea of systematic innovation – take a look at the way Thomas Edison drove innovation. I have to believe that completely unstructured will give a higher probability of no results that a dedicated team with specific objectives (planned spontaneity).

I would love to hear the conversation when you propose and across the board 12.5% of the work week go to this. When we put full time BB's on the table everybody has a million excuses why it will not work because everyone is so busy (we don't even ask for 1% we are closer to 0.1%). With your proposal that means for every 8 people there is a work week off the table. Not wish you ill but I would truely love to hear that conversation. Just a suggestion if you choose to try this I would spend some time one on one with some of the executives and see their reaction before I stood up and proposed that. It is hat the South African's refer to as throwing a Rhino's head on the table.

Good luck.

Message: 483
Posted by: Robin
Posted on: Thursday, 19th April 2007

You could try and classify the types of innovation you want rather than worry about the tools?

You could innovate the way to do business with your customer? Things like time to market, ways to do business, ease to do business.

You could innovate your product? Things like distincting products for distinctive market niches, wow-factor enhancements or value-adding services or add-ons

You could innovate your processes? Things reducing waste, reducing defects or reduces cycle times

Your could innovate your business? Things like buy another businesses that will add value, sell the business to create a better combined group or move into a new market