Define Innovation - Avoid the Debate

How do you define innovation? Chances are if you ask ten people this question, you will get many different answers and most probably some fiery debate. The common clash of opinions tends to center around whether incremental improvement should be classed as innovation or not. (Trust me, I’ve been part of these arguments…sorry, discussions…many times.) So how important is finding the correct definition of innovation within your organisation? The answer might surprise you.

For a number of years I worked in a large firm where innovation, despite being a major focus, had been left undefined. The problem was that through lack of definition, innovation became a topic open to debate and confusion - even amongst senior leadership. Regardless of people’s individual opinions, the company had not drawn a line in the sand about what was expected. What innovation was and wasn’t supposed to be became a contentious point and then an excuse for inaction. Inaction is one of innovation’s worst enemies.

So how important is finding the correct definition? Not nearly as important as the act of defining. Who’s to say what is ‘correct’ anyway? Even innovation professionals can’t agree on this. Just see the debate that ensued on Linkedin after an article was posted on this very topic.

Having a definition of innovation, forms the basis for innovation action and enables your employees. If a definition doesn’t exist, how do they know where to start and where they are trying to end up?

More often than not a lack of definition will lead either to:

a)    A misunderstanding of what your company wants from innovation (with flow on effects of ideas that just don’t quite hit the mark). Or even worse,

b)    Innovation paralysis – I don’t know what they want, I don’t understand, I don’t know what I’m doing, so I’m not going to try.

There are many ways you can break down what your company means by innovation, but the two main things I recommend you address are:

  1. How new or novel are the ideas you are seeking? E.g. Incremental, substantial, radical, blue ocean. You might decide on something progressive, conservative or something that covers all bases.
  2. What is the focus for your innovation activities? E.g. Product, process, service, production, organisational or marketing. You might like to focus purely on innovation that directly relates to your customers and users or also focus on internal innovation.

Whatever the case, don’t stress too much over whether you’ve got it just right. Pick something, commit to it and communicate it. You can always re-adjust later.  What is important is that you convey something, anything, to your employees about what you are trying to achieve.  This will not only give them that all important starting point, but also help ensure that what they deliver makes sense along side your wider business strategies.

This brings up the other very important point, that how you define, present and manage innovation within you company, should be a product of your innovation and business strategies. I’ll write about this in the coming weeks, but for now, some questions and action points…

  1. Does your organisaiton have a clear definition of what it means by innovation?
  2. If you do have a definition, check it for clarity. Does it provide enough guidance to staff about what they should be focusing on?
  3. If you do have a clear definition, is it well communicated? Do staff know about it?

If you answered no to any of the above questions, get the definition ball rolling. Send an email, have a discussion, organise a workshop – whatever you do, take action! You might like to use this article to stimulate the conversation.