Defining Innovation

Definitions of innovation abound. And while we all live with variety and even ambiguity, it helps when people trying  to innovate are on the same page about what it means.

Dictionary.com defines innovation as “something new or different introduced.” Peter Drucker described it as the effort to create purposeful, systematic change in an enterprise’s economic or social potential. President Obama’s Strategy for American Innovation defines it as “the process by which individuals and organizations generate new ideas and put them into practice.”

These and many good definitions share some common features.

  1. Doing something different. Is the organization trying to do something different to get a better result? Whatever innovation is, it surely isn’t repeating what you’ve done before and expecting a different outcome. There’s a different word for that. Organizations that try something different to get a better outcome are innovating.
  2. To invent or not invent? Invention is most certainly innovative, but one need not invent to innovate. Some of the best innovations are ideas transplanted across fields or disciplines and applied in new ways. Beg, borrow, steal ideas from anywhere they’ve worked before. Just give credit where credit is due.
  3. Technology. Technology is closely associated with innovation, but an organization can innovate its business model (customers, products and services, supply chain, etc.) and internal business processes. Innovation isn’t only about technology, even if technology is involved.
  4. Value. Adding value for a customer is, ultimately, why organizations innovate. Customers come in two flavors – primary and secondary or supporting. Primary customers of government agencies are citizens. Supporting customers might be those internal to an organization, interest groups, Congressional staff and members, etc. When an organization strives to do something different to produce more value for a customer, it’s innovating.
  5. The learning experience. This one is easily overlooked but is really central to innovation. Innovation is about doing something different to add value, and “different” requires change. Change requires learning – new understandings, knowledge, skills, capabilities, processes, activities. Organizations that create an opportunity to learn, in which managers and staff can figure out what to do different to get a better result – those organizations are innovating.

If your organization is talking about  innovation, you’ll know it’s walking the talk if one or more of these features is present.

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