What Does “Innovation” Mean To You?

What’s Your Definition of Innovation?

The term innovation has become almost meaningless. What does it really mean? What does it mean to your company? What does it mean to your customer? What does it mean to you?

If you ask me, there is one clear definition we should stick to when it comes to corporate innovation.

When many firms talk about innovating, they mean it in the classical sense, which in my view is “creating new products and services which can be sold immediately for profit”, and possibly its corollary, great improvements in processes which can lead to substantial cost savings.

Of course the former is definitely more fun, but the latter has its place as well.

Now if that is your definition of innovation, then I would assume that you have a program in place which can not only generate the ideas (possibly from internal or external crowdsourcing), but that there is also a path for these ideas to take: a review process where the idea is debated and refined, an approval process where the idea is reviewed and budget to move the idea forward is allocated, then a place or space within the organization (or via vendors) to develop that idea into a saleable or implemented product or service. Once that product or service becomes real, support within the organization to promote and market that product and service to the targeted market, as well as support its ongoing development and enhancement.

There are many other moving parts, but that’s the high-level: you have built a flow within the organization which takes the idea from inception to reality, supporting all of the individuals along the way with tools, processes, appropriate budget, marketing, and anything else required in order to turn that idea from an idea into a success.

Look at the innovation process within your own organization. Does it do all of that? When was the last time a truly new idea progressed from idea to product-in-market within your organization?

If you’ve seen a large number of these, then great. Innovation truly means “innovation” in your organization.

But what if any of the following are happening:

  1. You don’t really have space for employees to contribute ideas outside of their department. You’ve announced that there is no real need for an innovation group or an innovation lab, and everyone is an innovator. Any ideas that they may have can be fielded directly with their manager. For some reason, this process seems to yield very few big ideas.
  2. You talk about other companies, including startups in your space, and buy, rent or subscribe to these services in the name of research. You enjoy playing with these cool new toys and gadgets and think that someday they will spur new thinking.
  3. Or maybe you do gather ideas, but they never seem to go anywhere. The quantity of ideas and number of inventors submitting ideas are well documented, both within and without the organization, but there are little to no products created. There are a lot of innovation initiatives which gather ideas, maybe places to crowd-review the ideas, but not much after that.
  4. You ask for ideas which are small incremental improvements to what you are doing now, instead of big-out-of-the-box thinking, then complain that you don’t get any out-of-the-box thinking.
  5. Or you do ask for big out-of-the-box ideas, but when they are too radical, too far out from your core business, you just tell the inventors “sorry, we just can’t go there”

Then it may mean that innovation has a completely different meaning within your organization. Maybe for you innovation is marketing, where your firm can talk about the great numbers of innovative ideas and inventors, but never actually build and launch one. Maybe innovation means “look how cool we are, developing all of this cool stuff”

Or maybe innovation is a hiring tool? It’s a way to attract the best and brightest to your organization, only to have them leave a few years later when they realize that innovation doesn’t mean what they thought it did.

Or maybe innovation is more of a motivational tool, helping your employees to be more engaged. However, unless there is a flow that goes all the way through to product, then as above, eventually your employees will be disillusioned with the process and quit engaging so readily.

While most firms agree and communicate that innovation within the organization is defined by them in the classic sense, as I’ve mentioned above, actions sometimes belie the real definition. In those cases, you aren’t really fooling anyone. If you do not have a real innovation flow, as defined in the classic sense, then your people will figure it out. Maybe not immediately, but they will.

When that happens, be prepared for your innovation pipeline to dry up.

If you don’t want that to happen, if you are truly interested in developing a classic innovation flow, then you need to provide all of the elements above, with a proven, well-communicated process. You need to establish a process, communicate wins (as well as failures) and show some true progress in making ideas real.

Otherwise, for you, innovation will be meaningless.