What is “Innovation” Anyway?

I started writing the what is “x” anyway series to examine words that have become so ubiquitous as to render them useless, beginning with “innovation”. In the context of entrepreneurial activity, my quest back to precision of meaning is to initially understand the term from academic purists and layer in more recent explanations and market observation.

Quests of course are not straightforward. There is much disagreement amongst academics; is innovation technical or economic? Are incremental improvements considered innovation? Does innovation have to be new to the world or new within organisations? To focus the discussion, I offer to objectively share those I like the best.

Traditional literature and indeed most of the way we think about innovation focuses on the novel idea or the product in and of itself. The clearest definitions however argue that innovation is a composite of both the original product or idea and how it is translated to the market . Dr Henry Chesbrough, cited by the Economist as the Godfather of open innovation, states:

The inherent value of technology [or innovation] remains latent until it is commercialised in some way…A business model unlocks that latent value mediating between technical and economic domains in some way
(Chesbrough & Rosenbloom 2002)

More recently, within the lively, occasionally violent modern debate written in CAPS LOCK online, the consistent theme is that innovation encompasses execution in some form or another. Tomasz Tunguz goes a step further in his blog on a suggested formula for innovation that includes timing. He states that “only when the customer base has adopted the invention at scale have we truly innovated” and this needs to coincide with market readiness.

Innovation = Invention + Go To Market + Timing

Facebook vs. MySpace, Friendster are more well known examples of how go-to-market and timing play heavily into the equation. The core social network invention was not new but Facebook learnt a great deal from its predecessors mistakes. Launching later with contrasting and differentiating features and its initial targeting of college campuses allowed it to achieve much wider adoption pushing the others into relative obscurity.

Breaking down innovation to more digestible parts in this way allowed me to use the term more appropriately rather than sprinkled as a buzzword. For “experts” on innovation the jury may always be out. I will for now, leave the quest on a high note (or low note if you are a lazy genius) with Peter Drucker’s stance on innovation;

“But when all is said and done, what innovation requires is hard, focused, purposeful work. If diligence, persistence, and commitment are lacking, talent, ingenuity, and knowledge are of no avail”

For more bite-size thoughts follow me on twitter @kajalnycmba, I am on a longer quest to help the best European entrepreneurs and innovators to expand their businesses successfully to the US.

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