“The introduction of something new.”
That’s how Merriam-Webster defines the word “innovation.” That’s it.
So why is it something we never stop hearing about, and apparently more difficult to actually do than 90 percent of everything else in the world, especially when it comes to innovating in business?
Because, if we’re being honest, that’s not really what it means. Not all it means, at least.
As Business Insider puts it, “Innovation is a buzzword businesspeople can’t live without, but over the years, its meaning has gotten lost in the abyss of business jargon.”
We’re constantly told to accelerate it or that we’re not doing enough of it, but maybe we need to take a step back for a moment and consider what it is we really mean when we talk about innovation.
Here’s how some people that have succeeded in creating innovation think about innovation:
Improving something that already exists
While Merriam-Webster won’t like it, much of the time innovation actually means updating something that’s already out there. And while this might take the form of creating a new product or piece of technology, much of the time we’re really talking about processes.
As business author David Burkus says, “Great leaders don’t innovate the product, they innovate the factory.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invent social media, but he brought novel approaches to it. Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile, but he brought dramatic innovation to the industry with the assembly line.
Finding novel ways to make things more efficient, improve productivity or provide improvements that customers will pay for can be considered just as innovative as inventing something completely new. And much of the time, this is actually what business leaders and managers mean when they’re talking about being more innovative.
Differentiating yourself in the market in a way that creates value
For businesses to be truly innovative, McKinsey & Company recommends a few questions companies should be asking themselves. One of the most important is: “Do you have differentiated business, market and technology insights that translate into winning value propositions?”
You can create something completely new, but if there’s not an appetite for it in the market, it has no value. So, is that really innovative? At least in a business sense, not really.
Think of those infomercials you see late at night advertising solutions to problems that don’t exist (just admit you watch them, we won’t judge you). They might move some items off the shelf, but no one’s grouping As Seen it on TV products in with Steve Jobs and the iPhone.
But the Steve Jobs and Henry Fords of the world are few and far between. It’s OK to admit that most of us are not super-geniuses with world-changing ideas or the tools to put them in action. But there are some real, tangible ways to innovate through differentiation.
McKinsey and Company goes on to recommend, “methodically and systematically scrutinizing three areas: a valuable problem to solve, a technology that enables a solution, and a business model that generates money from it.”
The key here is matching value to the problem you’re solving. We know how to cook eggs and have plenty of devices to do it by now. Creating a new device that cooks the perfect fried egg might be fun for a while, but it’s not really innovation.
The market defines your value, and it places the most value on problems that actually need solving. Using predictive analytics to help find a cure for cancer? That’s more like it.
And it can be done by regular humans, doing regular work — as long as they’re doing it the right way.
Fail all of the time
When you read what big tech leaders have to say about innovation, it sounds like the best way to do it is by basically always failing.
Mark Zuckerberg says that, “unless you are breaking some stuff you are not moving fast enough.”
Steve Jobs was quoted as saying: “Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly and get on with improving your other innovations.”
Charles Kettering — basically the Elon Musk of the 1920s through ‘40s — put it bluntly: “99 percent of success is built on failure.”
So when your boss says they want to see more innovation, they mean you should just screw everything up, right?
Of course not. What they’re saying is that to innovate means to move quickly, and to move quickly you are bound to make some mistakes on the way. And that’s OK.
Well, it’s OK as long as you are learning from those mistakes and putting that knowledge to use the next time around.
One big happy, innovative family
It’s very rare that the word “innovation” is used, at least in a business setting, to mean inventing something brand new.
Innovation isn’t one single thing with one clear definition. It takes a multitude of conditions coming together at the right moment and in the right way to be truly innovative.
No word yet on whether Merriam-Webster will be updating their definition of innovation, but we’d say don’t hold your breath.