Back to Writing

What is Innovation?

What is Innovation?

When asked to define the legal definition for obscenity, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously quipped “I know it when I see it.” For most of us the same applies to a working definition for innovation. We have a general sense of what it is but we know that under cross examination of the evidence it probably wouldn’t hold up.

Think about what you take to be the most innovative organization in the world and why: Apple, Genentech, any stalwart global brand, obscure NGO or fashionable start-up or will do. Contained in your answer is your belief and confirmation bias that reveals what you really take to be innovation:

  • New Technology
  • Services and Solutions
  • Experiences
  • Processes and Methods
  • Valuable Outcomes
  • Fashion and Design
  • Social Good
  • [Your Bias Goes Here]

The challenge of defining innovation is finding a common denominator: attributes, functions, outcomes or other discernible differentiating characteristics. Would your definition for innovation work for a mature tier two automotive supplier, a young fashion designer that makes stylish handbags and a marketing services start up? If it does, it’s probably a nominal description like “useful novelty”. Oh, that’s helpful. It only includes everything.

When examining any number of the annual beauty pageants of the “most innovation companies in the world” it becomes clear that relatively few of these organizations are on multiple lists: Google and Apple being the obvious exceptions. More so, when looking closely at how these companies innovate they bear little resemblance to each other and are indistinguishable from the competitors in their segments: strategies, metrics, culture or types of people for example. The same holds true even when considering the size of the enterprise: large, mid and small cap companies.

So why does a common definition of innovation matter? Because if you don’t share a common description of what innovation is and how it is created you have little chance of achieving it with the other members of your organization. This is particularly true for the entrepreneurial firm that is rapidly growing into something bigger and presumably better. Sure everyone is working on innovation but since they all have their own interpretation of just what exactly that means they are not working toward the same outcome. So they go their own way in the hopes that it will all sync up in the end. It seldom does.

The late Marshall McLuhan, University of Toronto professor and cultural guru, suggested a functional definition for innovation that is easily recognizable by anyone in any type organization.

An innovation…

  1. Enhances something: Think about how Google was a late entrant into the search biz but lapped the field with its simple approach
  2. Eliminates something: Think about how Charles Schwab eliminated the need for stock brokers by connecting the back office of the trading house directly to the customer
  3. Returns Us to Something in Our Past: Think about how the desire to have home cooked family meals has lead to the proliferation of underground dining and slow food restaurants
  4. Over Time Reverses into Its Opposite: Think about how e-mail was going to set us all free but instead enslaved us with its ubiquitous and overwhelming demands

It is assumed that the more potent the innovation the more it embodies the four attributes and vice versa.

McLuhan understood that innovation was specific to the situation that gave rise to it or destroyed it. So he focused on its effects and not its causes. He warned that a one size fits all approach with its simple checklist would do more harm than good and lead to a form of intellectual and creative myopia.

Innovation has a transformative power for brief period of time when it produces the ability to create or destroy value. After that it becomes the standard, the norm and the ordinary. Like milk, it has a shelf life and goes sour over time.

So if you know innovation when you see it, chances are you didn’t really see it and you probably don’t know it.

Share this article