What 'Innovation' Does Mean

This post originally appeared July 11, 2011 on BetterProjects.net.

Last week, I did a post that catalogued a list of things innovation is not. I put this list together for two reasons: first, you hear all the time about what innovation is, but rarely about what its not. Second, having recently been asked by someone to ‘get creative’ when, if you know any thing about my work at all, I generally have to reign in my creativity for most people to keep up. Its not that I’m some genius (ok, I am, but lets leave my Mensa paperwork out of this), but I do get a lot of ideas. Most of them (ok, nearly all of them) suck, but on occasion, just like the picture to the right, one of them works. It may be the wonky one that fell over, but it does work.

With that in mind, I sat down and thought about what I really believe innovation is and does. As you’ll see from my list and short descriptions for each item, being and doing are inseparable when it comes to innovation. So without further adieu, here is the list. Read it, then go out and do it. I’ll do the same.


…must be nurtured. If you’re not feeding it constantly, like one of those tamagotchi that were so popular in the 1990s, it will die. You can’t ignore it. It is like that unruly child that needs more time than you think you have to give it.

…thrives on new experiences. You can’t sequester it in a dark room (or a carpeted cubicle) and expect it to produce miracles. No, surfing the web is not a (good) substitute for experiences. It needs to be around others who can provide it with new stimuli. Consider it your inner toddler.

…is equal parts creation and destruction. Remember that project you did that rewrote your company’s mission critical application from a mainframe dinosaur into a web-based cyborg? Remember that row of old gray-beards that soon found themselves out of a job once the power switch was flipped into the off position on those old green-screens? They were yesterday’s innovators. You are today’s innovator and some day soon, you’ll have that gray beard when the next technology revolution occurs. Your innovation today was creative for you, but destructive to someone else’s world. That isn’t a warning that you shouldn’t innovate, only to be aware of the consequences of your innovation.

…is disruptive. It breaks up the status quo. It turns the world upside down. It knocks people down. It uses lots of overused cliches (not really; just making sure you’re paying attention). When innovation happens, people either change with it or they don’t. Processes, technology and products fare no better than people.

…is more than just about product; it is also about process, form and service. Sure, we all hear innovation and think about the new, shiny product from Apple, but sometimes that product isn’t something that’s tangible. Innovation in process changes the way people work and play. Innovation in form changes the way we interact with the world around us. Innovation in service changes our relationship with people and organizations.

…produces. Ideas are not innovative. Innovation contains ideas, but is not just an idea. If you’re innovative, you produce and do so in abundance. You can have the best idea in the world, but until someone actually can use or follow it, it isn’t innovative. A person with a good idea for a movie is not an award-winning director or producer; they’re just a person with an idea.

…leads to growth, but growth does not always lead to innovation. This one is tricky. When you innovate, you are specifically, intentionally, doing something that is better and different than anyone else. You will, sometimes organically and other times with a little marketing help, draw people to you simply because of what you’re doing. This leads to growth, and as more people become aware of what you’re doing, to more growth. But just because you’re growing, does not mean you are in any way innovating. Your one, original great implementation may be stagnant for years while people slowly become aware of how great it is, but it doesn’t mean any of the dozens of ideas you’ve had since then are in any way innovative.

…builds upon prior innovation. Innovation isn’t a lightning strike (at least not usually); its more of a slow boil (usually). Innovation takes innovations of the past, tweaks them, recombines them with different innovations and creates something novel and useful. Don’t worry that your innovation is nothing more than a compilation of stuff other people thought of; that’s exactly what those other people’s innovations were as well.

…embraces failures, both of commission and omission. There are two ways to fail: doing something and it failing or not doing anything and failing. If you build something novel, but not useful, its probably going to fail (commission). If you had the idea but implemented nothing while someone else had the same idea, implemented it and succeeded, you also failed (omission). Both processes teach you something. The first teaches you not everything is really innovative. The second teaches you to seize when it comes to you; not to wait for someone else to create it first.

…is hard. Not everyone (in fact most people) can be innovative. There are lots of reasons for this. Some people don’t give themselves time or space to be innovative. Some don’t believe its possible for them. Others blame someone else’s stifling influence on their own failure to innovate. There are as many reasons as there are people on this planet (and probably quite a few more) to not be innovative. In the end, innovation is about choice. If you set out to be innovative, I can’t guarantee it will happen. I can guarantee you won’t be innovative if you choose to not be innovative.

What about you? What is on your list of ways to be innovative?