“I know it when I see it.”
These words were famously written by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and have since become shorthand for slippery subjects that defy definition. He wasn’t talking about innovation, but he could have been.
Depending on who you talk to, the word might be applied to a new product, clever packaging, new technology, a mobile app, an experiential marketing campaign, a startup company or any one of dozens of different definitions. The word gets thrown around with abandon, but rarely with much definition. Last year, “innovate” earned the ignoble distinction of landing on Mashable’s most overused corporate buzzwords list. Wired called it the buzzword of the decade. Publications as diverse as the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Washington Post and Politico have written of its overuse and impending irrelevance.
“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, …”
~ Justice Potter Stewart
When we engage with clients who want to be more innovative or are seeking an innovative approach to a problem or opportunity, often one of the very first things we have to do is to solidify a shared definition of innovation.
For us, innovation is not merely making or doing new things. It is not a product or technology or even a business model or startup. Innovation is a process and a discipline. It’s an activity, not an artifact or outcome.
More importantly, innovation is a process that is essential to survival. In evolutionary terms, innovation is akin to adaptation. It is the process by which brands adapt to, anticipate or (even better) create change in consumers, marketplaces and macroeconomic conditions. Unlike evolution, however, innovation is adaptation driven by intent, rather than natural selection. Brands with a rigorous, vital approach to innovation win and sustain favor with successive generations of consumers. Brands that don’t innovate fall into irrelevance and decline.
If the word innovation feels ambiguous or misused in your company, asking a few key questions can help to solidify its meaning and create momentum for your innovation efforts.
- What role does innovation play in your brand?
For some categories and some brands, being seen as an innovator is vital to brand health. For others, perception of innovation is less critical. Establishing a shared understanding of the innovation’s importance to your brand’s value is a critical first step.
- Do people perceive your brand as innovative?
The next step is understanding how people inside and outside your company rate your brand in terms of innovation. Often, there is a disconnect between insiders and customers. Identifying that disconnect can produce valuable discussions.
- How does innovation happen in your company?
Innovative brands not only have a clear point of view on what innovation means and its importance to the brand, they also have strong innovation infrastructure — processes, budgets and ownership — to bring innovation ideas to market.
- On what level do you innovate?
Innovation rarely means bringing something entirely new into the world. More often, it’s delivering ideas that are new to the company, new to your category or new to your consumer. Knowing the level you need to attain, can keep you grounded.
- Can you name successful recent innovations?
Brands with strong innovation systems celebrate innovations and understand their impact on key brand and business metrics. Conversations about recent innovations are often highly illuminating. They can bring to light differences in definitions and expectations of innovation.
- Can you identify failed innovation attempts and learnings?
Just as important as defining successes is recognizing and tolerating failure. Innovation is hard. It comes with a high failure rate. Brands that understand this take a portfolio approach to innovation and value the learnings as much as the successes.
Innovation drives adaptation, and adaptation drives viability. At some level, innovation is essential to survival of every brand. Brands that want to become future proof, or better yet, brands that want to shape their own future, can’t allow innovation to remain ill-defined. If you don’t yet have a clear point of view on innovation for your brand, it’s time to get hardcore.