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What is innovation?

This is the first of a series of fortnightly articles focusing on the topic of innovation. I intend to inform, educate or at least make you curious about this topic that I am so passionate about.  I have studied many academic fields with the hope of finding my true calling, but nothing kept me interested until the penny dropped one day staring out the window in a MBA class on strategy. Since then I have focused my studies and my career on this fascinating topic.
What is innovation?
Innovation has become quite a buzzword, if not THE buzzword in the world of business over the last couple of years.  It almost always features as part of the list of values, or the mission statement of many organisations, and there are a whole bunch of surveys done by some or other management consulting house every year, telling us that CEOs rank innovation as the second or third most important initiative their firm should undertake.  But how many people or business leaders truly understand what innovation is, how to apply it to their advantage and in fact pursue it within this mind-set?
Firstly, let me give you the truth on the two matters that I think are the most important with regards to defining innovation.  One, there is no one true, universally accepted definition for innovation. What every organisation views as innovation, depends on the context in which it is applied.  Two, innovation is not something mythical, a special gift, or a capability only reserved for the Apple’s and Google’s of this world.  Innovation is a business discipline that can be learned, improved and excelled in.
So, the question then becomes: What is innovation if you can’t have one single definition for it.
For me, the solution to the innovation definition enigma is that all the different definitions have some common denominators. I drew up a list of these terms featured in the majority of the definitions of innovation during my MBA research report, and it was quite extensive, but I will simplify it by narrowing it down to the following three concepts that every definition of innovation contains in some or other form: Novelty (newness, if you want), Implementation, and Value.
The novelty concept is in the true definition of the word, according to the Oxford Dictionary, the word “innovate” has its origin in the mid-16th century from the Latin word innovare, from in ‘into’ + novare ‘make new’. The implementation concept is easy to explain, if you have a great new idea, and you do nothing about it, that is al it is – a great idea.  The value concept refers to value in any form, e.g. profit, efficiency, better health, a cleaner environment, etc.  If it does not have value for someone, it is not innovation.  As Edward de Bono once explained, if you have a great idea of a triangular door, for example, but it has no value for anyone to have a triangular door, it is not innovation.
The word innovation is also sometimes mistaken for two other concepts, namely “invention” and “creativity”.  Let me explain  the difference between innovation and these terms with some “quick and dirty” examples.  Theodore Levitt explained the difference between innovation and creativity very simplistic: “Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.” Fagerberg explains the difference between invention and innovation as follows: “Invention is the first occurrence of an idea (some researchers use the term “breakthrough”) in this context for a new product or process, and innovation is the first commercialisation of the idea.
Why all the fuss about defining innovation? Research has proven that how, and in what context, innovation is defined, has a significant influence on how innovation and the management thereof is approached. Just think about the different ways in which a profit and a non-profit organisation will pursue innovation.
As an innovation practitioner, with my major focus being corporate or organisational innovation, the definition I prefer for innovation is: “Innovation is the application of resources to create value for the customer and the enterprise by developing, improving and commercialising new and existing products, processes and services.”
Next Time
We kicked off this series on innovation looking at its definition and why it matters. In the next delivery I will focus on the benefits of innovation and why it is worth pursuing. I leave you with this piece of wisdom of one of the greatest innovators of all time, Thomas Edison: “There’s a way to do it better – find it.”

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