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Innovation - What Is Innovation?

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  • What is innovation? According to Merriam-Webster, innovation is:

    Main Entry: in•no•va•tion
    Pronunciation: "i-n&-'vA-sh&n
    Function: noun
    1 : the introduction of something new
    2 : a new idea, method or device

    An invention is useful only to the inventor unless it is offered to the public, however niche that public may be. If the invention improves some product, process or service for the public, then that invention transforms into an innovation.

    An innovation can be big or small. Brand-new or just a bit different, it doesn't matter. An innovation can be clearly complex or seemingly simple. Innovations are often thought of in terms of technical achievement, but can also be a design. The type, industry and style of innovation are irrelevant; an innovation's impact determines its qualification.

    The presence of a genius can help with innovation – it may speed up the end result by having a person who can see and make the future happen. However, innovation is more than the work of any one "Einstein." Innovation involves the taking of the work of an individual (or team) of inventors and taking it to a broader audience.

    The future of many businesses depends upon their ability to innovate. Competition is fierce. Knowledge spreads quickly. The ability of a company to not only keep up with its current business practices, but to exceed its own – and its competition's – expectations are critical to survival.

    Theories of Innovation

    Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship... the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.
    - Peter Drucker

    There are many different theories of innovation: breakthrough, incremental, open source to name but a few. There are arguments stating innovations have to be disruptive to qualify; others argue that any change—as long as it is measurable—qualifies as innovation. Some people want innovations to be open and available to all as a means of challenging even more growth and ingenuity; others believe that new discoveries and paths need to be developed privately and secretly.

    Methods and Tools for Innovation

    Innovation is hard to schedule.
    - Dan Fylstra

    Yes, it's true: there are methods and tools for innovation. You didn't know? You're not alone. Although innovation is highly touted as the future of business, very few people have any idea for how to actually make that happen other than hoping they hire someone who will keep coming up with good – and profitable – products and services each year. (Trial-and-error is not an effective or efficient means of facilitating innovation.)

    Barriers to Innovation

    We ought not be over anxious to encourage innovation, in case of doubtful improvement, for an old system must ever have two advantages over a new one; it is established and it is understood.
    - C.C. Colton

    The company culture and leadership are two prominent barriers to innovation. If your company's culture isn't set-up to accept new ideas and creative contributions from its staff then inventions will be unable to break through to the marketplace.

    Your organization may be structured so that the development of an innovation is more challenging than at another business. This confining structure can be physical or, alternatively, systemic in terms of the company's culture.

    Measures of Innovation

    Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have... It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.
    -Steve Jobs

    There are no definitive metrics for innovation. Measures of innovative success vary by company and industry. And, as with any type of statistic, the numbers must be looked at closely in order to withstand analysis. The most common metrics are patent creation and R&D.

    • Patent creation – Some companies create patent after patent and boast of their innovative capabilities. While this may be well and true for a few, if the numbers of patented products, processes, and services are now making it to the marketplace, then their relevance diminishes.
    • R&D – This metric assumes that the amount of money spent on research and development directly correlates to the amount of innovative products, processes and services that get to the public.

    Other measures? Total shareholder return is gaining in popularity, but for the most part the field is still open to metrics competition.

    What Is NOT Innovation?

    Invention is the mother of necessity.
    - Thorstein Veblen

    It is important to be clear as to what innovation is not. Innovation is NOT invention, even if invention is the mother of necessity. These two words are sometimes used interchangeably, but although connected they are not the same. An innovation is the extension of an invention.

    If an inventor discovers the "next big thing," but is unable to find anyone to produce it, then the next big thing remains undiscovered to the world. For this invention to become an innovation, a public needs to be introduced to the invention and have said invention improve their lives in some way. This may happen behind the scenes (e.g., streamlined processes that lower costs to the customer) or be clearly visible (e.g., the flexibility of a laptop vs. a desktop).

    What Is "Real" Innovation?

    "Real" Innovation does not happen haphazardly or sporadically within organizations. "Real" Innovation is accomplished consistently and systematically, given the true voice of the customer and a process for delivering solutions. Companies that innovate successfully do so using an efficient and repeatable methodology. Success is not dependent upon genius – it emerges from the disciplined application of a proven innovation methodology.

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