Updated January 17, 2023
The many definitions for innovation
If you asked 10 different people to define innovation, you’d get 20 different responses.
It’s one of those things that seems simple to define and understand but turns complicated when you’re pressed for specifics. It’s no wonder. Innovation has turned into one of the biggest cliché words executives use to talk about how they differentiate their companies and lead industries but never actually define or explain. The truth is, we don’t have a common, agreed-upon definition of innovation. That’s because people have a hard time understanding and recognizing it, much less defining it. And that’s aside from the many different words for innovation and when to use each. Just in case matters weren’t complicated enough.
Let’s take a look at some of the definitions from industry experts:
“We define innovation as creativity plus delivery, helping our clients transform their innovation performance by focusing on four requirements for innovating at scale: strategy, pipeline of ideas, execution, and organization.” (McKinsey & Company)
“Innovation is the process through which value is created and delivered to a community of users in the form of a new solution.” (Fast Company)
“…an approach…that addresses a major imminent want or need that people have, [something] they know they want or need or that they will want or need once we provide it.” (George Damis Yancopoulos, president of Regeneron Laboratories and chief scientific officer of Regeneron Pharmaceutical)
“Innovation generally refers to changing processes or creating more effective processes, products and ideas.” (Department of Industry, Australian government)
“An innovation is a feasible relevant offering such as a product, service, process or experience with a viable business model that is perceived as new and is adopted by customers.” (Gijs van Wulfen, author of the FORTH innovation methodology)
Can you actually tell me what innovation is after reading those definitions? I can’t, and I make a living in this line of work!
Innovation is an amazing thing that can have a tremendous number of benefits, but does anyone really know what it is? I’m guessing that even if you had your company’s definition in front of you, you’d still feel confused.
That’s because people have a hard time explaining something they don’t understand themselves.
What innovation isn’t
I’ve been working in innovation for 20 years and I can tell you what innovation isn’t. Innovation isn’t thinking so far outside the box that you lose sight of who you are as a company, like LEGO did in the 1990s and early 2000s. Innovation isn’t getting trapped in group think like so many corporate cultures do. And innovation definitely isn’t ignoring the critical role failure plays in the process.
But the biggest thing innovation isn’t is creativity. They’re related, for sure. But they most definitely are not the same.
Many people think the two are synonymous. But they misunderstand the relationship between them. It’s especially important for business leaders who compete in an innovation-driven world to get the difference, because it’s a huge deal when it comes to a company’s culture.
Let’s explore the difference between creativity and innovation and set the record straight, once and for all.
Most of us think of creativity as a unique talent that relates to art—the ability to paint, sculpt, draw, compose music, or do anything that’s expressive. More broadly defined, creativity is the mental ability to imagine new, unusual, or unique ideas.
The Creativity Research Journal points out that originality is vital for creativity, but it’s not enough. For me, creativity is bringing a new perspective to anything and having it add value. Investing in creativity is almost a loss leader—it won’t make money as soon as you invest in it. But six months down the road, you’ll begin to see a change in the performance of both employees and your overall company for having encouraged it.
Creativity is tied directly to play and curiosity. We learn to be creative as kids when we’re curious and set out to discover new things. We use our skills of observation to put together unrelated things. Like when a kid wants a “doughnut sandwich” for dinner. Maybe it doesn’t add nutritional value, but that child’s new perspective definitely added entertainment value to their dinner time. We can use those same lessons of curiosity and playfulness to add more creativity to our work.
And it’s not just play and curiosity that impact our creativity. Oddly enough, putting some constraints in place or “thinking inside the box” can boost creativity. Like when George Lucas produced the original Star Wars movie in 1977, he did so with very little budget and technology. But it was with those very tight parameters that he was able to creatively solve all his problems. A desert landscape became an eclectic planet. A crude puppet turned into a Zen master. Small, hand-built toys morphed into massive space vessels. All the while he never lost sight of what was important – the story of a young man, Luke Skywalker, and his journey to becoming a hero.
Done well, learning to leverage creativity at work can result in massive business value and growth. But just like any new habit, fostering creativity is a daily practice. One that becomes much easier when you accept that everyone is creative, inspiration is a myth, and most importantly, that creativity is a critical piece of being innovative.
Creativity vs. innovation
If creativity is the idea of bringing a new perspective to anything and having it add value, innovation is the process of transforming that creativity into value.
Can you see the difference?
Not only is innovation a confusing word, but it’s also intimidating because of how it’s thrown around in business today—especially disruptive innovation.
The distinction between creativity and innovation is important because one can’t exist without the other in any environment. It’s impossible to develop a truly innovative company if creativity isn’t recognized, appreciated, and nurtured. And without effective processes to transform creative thinking into practical, high-value applications, creativity doesn’t mean squat.
Yet, when people think of both of these topics, they think of creativity as optional and innovation as a business necessity. But corporations are often famous for stifling innovation even as they tout how innovative they are.
How corporate culture complicates both creativity and innovation
To be fair, there’s a lot of pressure on the C-suite to focus on innovation. As the world adopts new, fast, and frequently changing technologies, businesses scramble to keep up through digital transformation and changing customer expectations. Execs want to prevent customer churn and revenue slumps. Boards of directors demand agility and efficiency. They have keen memories of the Kodaks, Borderses, and Polaroids of the world who failed to keep pace with change. They look at the likes of Amazon and Netflix and see that innovation is where the money is. The fact that it’s not happening either quickly or consistently means that it has to be hard to understand, right? There’s no CEO or executive consultant who would last a day if they didn’t tell the story of how they, personally, understand the complex, complicated processes, high-dollar investments, and bloated teams that make it a reality.
One way corporate culture complicates innovation is by thinking one department “owns” innovation. As if the research and development team has exclusive rights to be the idea generators of the company. But no one owns innovation. And even more ironically, many companies that throw money at R and D aren’t necessarily more innovative.
Another enemy of innovation? Brainstorming. I know, I know. I can hear the yells and see the torches and pitchforks. But hear me out. Brainstorming more often than not kills ideas.
There’s three problems with brainstorming.
First, we never come up with ideas that are truly unique. Fostering a daily practice of creativity can help solve this, but for most folks coming up with original ideas is a challenge when asked on the spot. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. It turns out that the best ideas come from everyday life. It’s just that we need to pay attention to what’s going on around us better, rather than rushing from one thing to the next. Learning how to combine ideas from everyday things and innovate them into a new spin-off is something I talk a lot more about in my book, RE:Think Innovation.
Second, it tests our critical thinking skills in a society that has largely given up on critical thinking, thanks to technology that does our thinking for us. Critical thinking can be improved, but like all skills, it takes time.
The final problem is that brainstorming fails because it doesn’t lead to results. We fall in love with the crazy ideas we come up with and then pitch them – to our customer, our boss, our team – and what do we get in return?
People tell us our ideas aren’t relatable. That will never work here. That they’re too big of a stretch. We don’t have that kind of budget. Or we just don’t do things that way. And then we go back to the same old things that we’ve always done.
But having a culture of innovation where you work – one that encourages ideas from all employees – will drastically change the success of your brainstorming session. And more importantly, it’ll drastically increase the innovative ideas your company can churn out.
First, though, we have to agree on what innovation is.
What is innovation, really?
Innovation isn’t actually complex at all—once you stop trying to make it that way. Here’s the definition of innovation that I’ve developed over more than 20 years of doing this work.
“Innovation is about consistently coming up with new, great, and reliable ideas.”
It doesn’t matter where in the organization you work, what your title is, or how long you’ve been there. An innovation culture understands why you need all three of these attributes to be successful. When you only have one, your approach to innovation isn’t sustainable.
In part 2 of this article series, we’ll take a look at why innovative ideas need all three characteristics to be truly innovative. They have to be new, they have to be great, and they have to be reliable.