What is Innovation?

Understanding and Defining Innovation

Innovation is a term that gets thrown around a lot. But what does it mean? What is innovation really?

If you ask 10 different people, you’d likely get 10 different answers. That’s not a bad thing. There is insight in all the responses depending on the perspective and experience of the person.

In fact, in the article below, 15 people shared their definitions of innovation and gave 15 different responses. There are some common themes, but each response is different.

What is Innovation: 15 Experts Give Their Opinions

I’ll jump into the fray and give my definition:

Innovation is creating something new, better, and valuable.

Let’s dissect this further to understand the parts of innovation.

Creation

First, innovation is about creating. Ideas are great, but innovation is taking those ideas from concepts into production. And that takes execution.

Steve Jobs said this about creation:

You know, one of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left John Sculley got a very serious disease. It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work. And if you just tell all these other people “here’s this great idea,” then of course they can go off and make it happen.

And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there are tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make. There are just certain things you can’t make electrons do. There are certain things you can’t make plastic do. Or glass do. Or factories do. Or robots do.

Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently.

And it’s that process that is the magic.

You have to create something to innovate.

New

Everyone agrees that innovation is about novelty. If you read most of the definitions above, and most definitions period, this is the common theme. Innovation is about creating something new.

In this article, What Is Innovation - From Idea to Practice, they talk extensively about creating something novel.

But is novel enough?

Yes, innovation has to be new and different. If you don’t create something that is new and different from what you’ve done before, and what users and customers and the market have seen before, we will all agree it’s not innovative.

But we see new things all the time. Changing the color of a product may be new and different, but is it innovative? I’d argue it isn’t.

New and different may be change, but it may not necessarily be innovation. Which is why we need to expand our definition further.

Better

Innovation must also be better.

Peter Thiel wrote about this in his book Zero to One:

As a good rule of thumb, proprietary technology must be at least 10 times better than its closest substitute in some important dimension to lead to a real monopolistic advantage. Anything less than an order of magnitude better will probably be perceived as a marginal improvement and will be hard to sell.

To overcome switching costs and to be truly innovative, improvements and changes should be new but also better. Some examples from Zero to One include PayPal, which made buying and selling on eBay 10 times better. Amazon offered at least 10 times as many books as physical book stores. And Apple’s iPad was significantly better than any tablet that came before.

In an article, Thoughts On Innovation From Intercom, Intercom lays out the key items that make up innovation for them. They include New, Different, and Better. I’ve decided that “new” and “different” are close enough to be the same for my purposes, so I’ve put them together, but the article is very good and worth a read.

Valuable

Finally, innovation can’t just be new and better, but it has to solve a meaningful problem. Both for users and for the businesses and creators. So it has to create value.

If an innovation doesn’t create value for users, doesn’t solve a real problem for them, it may be new and better, but they won’t adopt it and they won’t pay for it.

And if an innovation doesn’t create value for the business or the creators, how can it be sustainable? That doesn’t just mean monetary value, since that isn’t the only measure of value, but any sort of value.

So if the new innovation doesn’t create value, can it truly be considered an innovation? I’d argue it cannot. It must solve a problem and create value. There are many ways to do that, and many ways to measure it, but it’s a critical piece of the puzzle.

In another article, What is Innovation, DigiIntent also works to define innovation and agrees with me in adding the idea of value to the equation.

New, Better, Valuable

Putting it all together, innovation must be new, better, and valuable to be true innovation.

We use the term “innovation” way too frequently. It’s become too diluted in our modern business world. But if we focus on the right definition, we can get back to bringing real innovations back to our teams and our companies. We can create products, processes and experiences that are truly new, better, and valuable.


Good Reads, Listens, and Videos

Popular Baby Names (tool) - This is on the social security site and is the best tool I’ve seen. It is a fun tool to see the popularity of baby names over time. The most popular names for 2020 were Liam and Olivia. My name hasn’t been in the top, but that’s okay. Though surprisingly one of my best friends shared my name growing up.

U.S. birth and fertility rates in 2020 dropped to another record low, CDC says (article) - And speaking of baby names - “The number of births in the U.S. declined last year by 4% from 2019, double the average annual rate of decline of 2% since 2014, the CDC said in preliminary birth data released Wednesday. Total fertility rates and general fertility rates also declined by 4% since 2019, reaching record lows.”

Oversight Board Upholds Trump Ban from Facebook (article) - I try not to get too political, but I find all of this very interesting. I know as a product manager I wouldn’t want to be dealing with these types of difficult decisions, especially with the weight of elections in the balance. No matter what side you’re on, these are big questions and I don’t think they are clear-cut. And what happens when tech platforms become the de facto public square? I think it goes beyond terms-of-service and into a realm we haven’t dealt with as a society. But we’ll have to deal with it, eventually.

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