Stop Misusing the Word Innovation

“We need more innovation.” “Be more innovative!” “Innovate or die!!”

Like Inigo Montoya said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”


A lot of people use word “innovative” to describe something new. Many people also use “innovative” to describe something different. These are sloppy people; don’t be one of them.

Sure, innovation is related to new and different, but I’m related to my sister and that does not mean we are the same person; she loves to run (which is insane) and she dislikes avocados (even more insane). We’re similar, but different.

Getting the definition of innovation mostly right isn’t good enough. When communicating about product development, and when trying to do something as difficult as innovating, precision matters. Don’t make your life more difficult by using terms that are not clearly defined and understood.

I’ve buried the lead long enough. Here is the definition I prefer:

Innovation is the creation and delivery of new customer value.

This definition is taken* from the book “Innovation: The Five Disciplines,” by Curtis Carlson and William Wilmot. It’s also so defined in “What Customers Want,” by Anthony Ulwick.

*By taken I mean stolen (not a very innovative move), but hey, great artists steal.

There are a few key words in the definition. New is one of them. Delivery is one of them. Customer Value is two words, and they are, on their own and together, important.

If your product delivers value that another product already delivers, your product is not new, and ergo your product is not innovative.

If your product holds potential value for a customer but fails to deliver that value, your product is not innovative. To envision this, consider functionality buried beneath an impenetrable user interface. Or maybe your product is not commercially viable, and will never actually be created, despite the fact that it could — theoretically — really deliver some value. Again, no bueno (technical term).

Customer value is the key — it is the fundamental element that makes up this molecule of innovation.

Anyone familiar with product development should know this — that customer value is the whole ballgame. If someone wants to talk about innovation, the conversation should be focused on new customer value.

Don’t let yourself have a conversation about innovation and only talk about what’s new, what’s different, or what features you’re adding. Talk about new customer value.

A product can be new but not innovative. A product can be different but not innovative.

When new customer value is delivered, innovation is achieved.