‘Innovation’ is not a nonsensical buzzword

- September 10, 2014 4 MIN READ

For quite a while, I was almost certain that I not only understood what innovation meant, but also what its impact was.

I never quite knew how to define it, but was sure innovation meant something that was new and amazing, and that it had the capability to deliver an impact in a big way.

But then came the downturn of my understanding, likely caused by the pollution of the word and its associated meaning. I was hearing “innovation this, innovation that,” absolutely everywhere I went. I couldn’t escape the word.

To be honest, this caused confusion in my own mind. I was no longer certain I knew what innovation meant, how it applied and why it mattered.

Then came the epiphany, the defining moment in my understanding of innovation.

A colleague of mine and accomplished Chief Technology Officer sent me an article from Asymco’s Horace Dediu titled Innoveracy: Misunderstanding Innovation.

Horace explained that Innoveracy was to innovation what illiteracy was to reading and writing, and innumeracy was to simple numerical concepts.

After reading this article over and over, the reality was now so clear; I was suffering from a severe case of forced Innoveracy.

Horace explained it like this, “There is another form of ignorance which seems to be universal: the inability to understand the concept and role of innovation. The way this is exhibited is in the misuse of the term and the inability to discern the difference between novelty, creation, invention and innovation. The result is a failure to understand the causes of success and failure in business and hence the conditions that lead to economic growth.”

His definition was simple; “Innoveracy is the inability to understand creativity and the role it plays in society.”

I’m the first to admit that my forced exposure to expansive pollution of the word innovation caused my innoveracy, but I was determined to rid myself of it completely!

Where it all clicked for me was in the clearly outlined explanation of the difference between four key concepts; novelty, creation, invention and innovation. Widespread innoveracy has lead to these four concepts having the same meaning in the eyes of so many.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Novelty: Something new
  • Creation: Something new and valuable
  • Invention: Something new, having potential value through utility
  • Innovation: Something new and uniquely useful

Image credit: Asymco.com

This was the insight I needed to fully rid myself of innoveracy once and for all, but also to form my own definition of innovation, in a context relevant to me and my objectives.

I now define innovation as something that is new, uniquely useful and contextually successful.

This differs slightly from the way that Horace defines innovation and the deliberate hierarchical structure of the concept definition breakdown above.

“Note that the taxonomy has a hierarchy. Creations are novel, inventions are creations and innovations are usually based on some invention. However inventions are not innovations and neither are creations or novelties. Innovations are therefore the most demanding works because they require all the conditions in the hierarchy. Innovations implicitly require defensibility through a unique “operating model”. Put another way, they remain unique because few others can copy them.”

“To be innovative is very difficult, but because of the difficulty, being innovative is usually well rewarded. Indeed, it might be easier to identify innovations simply by their rewards. It’s almost a certainty that any great business is predicated on an innovation and that the lack of a reward in business means that some aspect of the conditions of innovation were not met,” he explains.

Another interesting point to note, which helps frame the context from Horace’s definition of innovation, is that he deliberately points to the fact that innovation requires validation.

“Understanding that innovation requires passing a market test and that passing that test is immensely rewarding both for the creator and for society at large means that we can focus on how to make it happen. Obsessing over the mere novelties or inventions means we allocate resources which markets won’t reward. Misusing the term and confusing it with activities that don’t create value takes our eye off the causes and moves us away from finding ways of repeatedly succeeding.”

I couldn’t agree more, but what I would add is that validation is based on the context of the ‘innovations’ objectives, and that innovations’ shouldn’t merely be tied to the commercial metrics of business success.

Contextual relevance is important in any situation, but in defining and executing innovation, it is an absolute necessity.

Innovation can occur in various contexts; commercial, community or otherwise, and the ‘success’ or ‘validation’ that helps confirm something that is new and uniquely useful as a true innovation must be directly aligned with the contextual relevance of the ‘innovations objectives.’

Does it serve its true purpose? Is it highly impactful? Does it literally change people’s lives in a desired way?

An ability to answer ‘yes’ to these types of questions can help us further define something that is an innovation from something that isn’t.

I’m with Horace in that I believe innoveracy is a serious issue. I was once a sufferer. But once we understand what innovation is and what it isn’t, we place ourselves in the position to truly appreciate how rare and impactful innovations are. And on top of that, this puts us in the position to go out and explore, validate and execute innovations in the real word, regardless of their contextual relevance.

I hope this helps in defining and solidifying your understanding of innovation, and also why it matters so very much.