Innovation Journey

[Photo: Haleakalā, Maui — Andrew Close]

Innovation. Everyone talks about it. People recognize it when they see it. But what exactly is it?

Five years ago, that question led me on a journey to find some answers. At the time, our company president was repeatedly telling us we needed to be innovative and that sentiment was echoed by many executives in many industries. I felt that if innovation was critical to our company’s success then I better have far more than a cursory understanding of it. I needed to find out how to identify it, nurture it and leverage it.

My quest started on the web. As with most journeys of discovery initially it can be difficult to find really good material. I found myself wading through reams of webpages but not making progress the way I had hoped to. So, I decided to enroll in night school at the University of Toronto in a Business Innovation certificate program.

Once gaining insight into what innovation really was it became important for me to help educate people because so many opportunities to innovate are squandered. So, over the next several years I found myself move out of the student’s chair and started teaching the innovation foundations course.

You can get a lot of value in learning the basics and one of the best starting points is to focus on the definition of innovation itself. The best definition I have found so far is by Scott D. Anthony in his book titled “The Little Black Book of Innovation: How It Works, How to Do It”. Scott defines innovation as “Something different that has impact.” Let’s dissect that definition to understand the power behind its simplicity:

Something: While most people think of innovative products, innovation comes in many forms: Service, Process, Social, Management and Business Model innovation are some of the other varieties. By understanding this and combining these different types you can often come up with far more powerful innovations that can give you a distinct and longer-living competitive advantage.

Different: Many people fall into the trap of thinking that an innovation has to be something new. When they do, they shut out several powerful ways of innovating. One of those ways is to take a concept or innovation from one industry and apply it to another. Another way is through the practice of biomimicry which imitates the innovations that nature created potentially hundreds of millions of years ago. The innovations themselves are not new but their use in a different setting creates a brand new innovation. Reapplying what exists is an excellent way to build your innovation momentum. Many people get stymied on their first innovation attempts by trying to create something new-to-the-world because there is nothing more difficult than finding something that doesn’t exist.

Impact: A critical differentiator of an innovation when you compare it to an invention or a creative activity is that an innovation always must deliver value. However, that value is defined by the consumer of the innovation. So in the case of a product innovation the impact could be seen as increased revenue. While in the case of a social innovation the impact could be as simple as a smile on a child’s face. If you are too narrow in your definition of value they you can miss out on multiple forms of value that can really differentiate your innovation.

Understanding innovation’s many forms, its sources and types-of-value can be a great start in helping you expand your perspective of innovation and identify many more opportunities to innovate. In subsequent stories, I’ll apply these fundamentals and explore other principles of innovation to show you how you can derive even more value from them.