Innovation 101 – an introduction

Have you ever wondered what innovation really mean? It is such a buzzword that it almost doesn’t make any sense. Here is my attempt to clarify, obfuscate and inspire on the matter.

I have been quite reluctant to write about innovation and my view on innovation. I guess five years in the innovation trenches in a large company took its toll. Finally I got the energy and focus to put together some innovation basics. I hope that it will clarify, confuse and inspire you.

“We need to be become better at innovation”

During the past years I have spoken with more than thirty organizations about innovation. The way that the conversation starts is something like this:

-We really need to step up our game when it comes to innovation. Do you think that you might be able to help us do that?
-Sure. I’d be delighted to help you. What do you mean when you say innovation?
-Hmmm… know…new ideas….creativity…IPR…patents…you know innovation?!
-What would you say about introducing the topic in your team by having a discussion about what innovation is and define what innovation means to you before we look at why you want innovation and how to help you improve?
-Sound like a good approach.

What is innovation?

There are well over 40 different definitions of innovation, so it is not so strange that people’s view on innovation differ. When I give presentations about innovation, I often say that if you put ten innovation researchers in a room to and ask them to agree on one definition of innovation, they will return with at least twenty definitions.

Wikipedia provides this definition of innovation as being the most complete:

Innovation is: production or adoption, assimilation, and exploitation of a value-added novelty in economic and social spheres; renewal and enlargement of products, services, and markets; development of new methods of production; and establishment of new management systems. It is both a process and an outcome.

Innovation is something new

Innovation always has an aspect of novelty. This means for example that being the five hundred twenty seven thousand organization on the planet introducing lean product development does not mean that you are doing process innovation.

The Toyota Production System on the other during the time it was developed during 1948 and 1975 and challenged other well established processes and ways of working might very well have been labelled as process innovation.

Innovation is something novel that is successful

Was TPS (and later on Lean) the first attempt at this process and mindset change? Most likely not. But it was the first successful attempt.

Innovation is a post definition (when it comes to describing the result and not the process). It is an innovation first when it has become successful.

The process of innovation includes working with a lot of things that doesn’t end up being innovations.

Innovation is risky business. Not working with innovation is even riskier business, it just doesn’t feel risky.

Innovation is something that fulfills a need

I tend to look at innovation from a Design Thinking point of view.

The Design Thinking definition of innovation describes the sweet spot for innovation in the overlap of what might be desirable from a customer/user perspective, what is viable (what we might be able to provide in a sustainable manner) and what is feasible (that it doesn’t break any laws of physics etc).

The type of needs that are of particular interest are so called latent or unarticulated needs. Or simply put, needs that you don’t know you had.

Design Thinking as an approach to innovation can be really great at finding these little gems of latent needs in order to generate a multitude of solutions for the needs and then rapidly prototype and test if it worked.

From my experience, Design Thinking approach almost always uncovers really interesting problems. What have surprised me over and over again, is that these problems were often well known but by people in the organization who might have been very close to the customer but had too little influence of the development of the service or product.

Even though I like the Design Thinking approach to innovation, it is not what I recommend all organizations. This might be due to that I am a strong believer in one size fits nobody.
If an organization has not reached a certain maturity level of innovation understanding and capabilities, it might not be able to reap the benefits of Design Thinking. It might actually do more harm than good in certain situations.

Design Thinking is ofter very good at ill-defined, hairy problems but not a good approach when the outcome is well defined.

Three years ago, I was forced by an organization to lead a Design Thinking project with a strictly defined outcome. I learned a lot from that experience and I have never seen another project fail in a more spectacular way. We even named it project no-name. The poor bastard never had a chance.

Different types of innovation

There are many different frameworks for types of innovation and many different types of innovation depending on the framework used.

Here are a few examples:

  • Transformational innovation
  • Disruptive innovation
  • Breakthrough innovation
  • Adjacent innovation
  • Incremental innovation
  • Sustaining innovation
  • Process innovation
  • Business model innovation
  • Profit model innovation
  • Network innovation
  • Offering innovation
  • Product performance innovation
  • Product system innovation
  • Channel innovation
  • Customer engagement innovation
  • Product innovation
  • Brand innovation
  • Configuration innovation
  • Experience innovation
  • Service innovation
  • Open innovation
  • Social innovation

It is not uncommon that several of these types are combined. Maybe it isn’t so strange after all that we have different views on innovation?

Common questions about innovation?

I often get questions about innovation and these are some of my most common replies.

Isn’t research and innovation the same thing?

Nope. Research is research and innovation is innovation. In Sweden there research and innovation is often mentioned together (especially in political context) and it is a bit like combining city planning and fishing politics.

High hopes are often put on research to come up with new stuff that will become innovation. It happens from time to time, but academia is not the primary source for innovation.

Is invention and innovation the same thing?

An invention has to be novel, but does not have to be successful nor solve somebody else’s problem.
An innovation also has to be novel, but it also needs to solve somebody else’s problem and has been successfully provided to its intended market.

Some inventions become innovations. One of my favorite examples is the selfie-stick.

The selfie-stick might have been invented as early as early as 1925. Minolta had a selfie-stick in 1983, the same year the patent for “telescopic extender” was filed. The selfie-stick was listed in 101 un-useless Japanese inventions in 1995. Fast forward to 2005. Canadian inventor patents his Quik Pod which became available in the US the following year. In 2012 Yeong-Ming Wang filed a patent for a “multi-axis omni-directional shooting extender” capable of holding a smartphone.

An old idea combined with the introduction of smart phones with cameras, Instagram and a culture that does not frown upon selfies (too much) made the invention turn into an innovation.

We have several patents. Does that mean that we are innovative?

The word innovative is commonly used as a synonym to creative. Creativity is only one aspect  of innovation work. Therefore, I personally don’t use the word innovative in order to avoid confusion.

Patents indicate a level of creativity and a fondness for IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) , but it does not necessarily indicate that you are good at innovation. Patents focus on feasibility (how things are done) and many patents are solutions looking for a problem. A problem that might be non-existing.

If you have patents, I would say that it indicates a technical proficiency in combination with creativity.

Some additional skills that might be required to strengthen innovation cpabilities are: business modeling, UX/CX (User eXperience/Customer eXperience), a collaborative culture, strong teams and a great sense of timing just to name a few.

Over and out

These are just a few things on the top of my head when it comes to innovations. I am always eager to discuss the topic. So, if this post triggers any thoughts or you think that it was the silliest thing that you’ve read today so far, please feel free to leave a comment.



Three things that I am grateful for today

  1. That my cats ears are finally starting to be better after the fourth trip to the vet.
  2. That I have managed to write two blog posts in two days. Whopee!
  3. For the exciting times ahead that are coming closer every day!

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