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Why Innovation is Difficult to Define

In our first post in the Innovation Management blog series, we want to talk about why innovation is difficult to define. When was the last time you heard the word innovation? Yesterday? Today? Ten minutes ago? Everyone is talking about Innovation, but are we all talking about the same thing? What is Innovation, exactly?

Innovation is difficult to define because it is both overused and misused. As with other buzz words, ‘innovation’ has been used by businesses to describe anything and everything that they do. When innovation means everything, innovation means nothing.

Innovation is probably the most overused term in the business and technology world. An article from Wall Street Journal last year stated that the term innovation has begun to lose it’s meaning and reveals some incredible statistics on the usage of ‘innovation’ in the business world:

  •  ‘Innovation ‘ was mentioned in 33,528 quarterly and annual reports in 2011
  •  More than 250 books were published with innovation in the title over a three month period.
  •  28% of business schools use ‘innovation’, ‘innovative’ or ‘innovate’ in their mission statements

And overuse is not the only problem. If everyone used ‘innovation’ in the correct manner, the dilution of meaning would not be as significant. However it is often misused as well making it more difficult to figure out what ‘innovation’ means.

It may be that from the beginning, innovation never had an official definition that truly captured its essence.

In Merriam Webster’s dictionary, innovation is defined as something new, a new idea, method or device. However, this definition feels incomplete. For example, if a scientist discovered and introduced a new bacterium into the literature, should that be considered innovation? Probably not. On the other hand, if the newly discovered bacterium was used to degrade waste from an oil spill, now that feels more like innovation.

Another popular business word that is frequently replaced with innovation is change. Yet again, change not the right word to describe innovation. If you changed the case on your phone from black to blue, that alone would not be innovation.

Finally another mistake is confusing ‘strategy’ with innovation. Strategy is a plan. Innovation requires execution. By using ‘innovation’ incorrectly in the place of words like strategy, change and new, the real meaning of innovation becomes lost.

The question becomes: why is using the word ‘innovation’ so popular in the business world today?

It has become widely accepted in most companies that innovation is key to remaining competitive. Back in 2005, Cisco published a study concluding that innovation is the most important factor in business success according to business and technology leaders.

New technology is advancing faster and faster while old technology quickly becomes obsolete. Old business models are rapidly being displaced by new ones. Companies are beginning to realize that innovation is no longer just about growth. For most businesses, innovation is now necessary just to stay in the game. So, over the last decade, there has been a slow boil in the popularity of ‘innovation’ to mean new.

In 2013, talking about innovation is no longer enough. Innovation is an important function of every business, and like any function, it will need to be managed. Innovation management requires measurement because you can’t measure what you don’t understand.

This is why it is important to start with a clear definition as it becomes the foundation for the rest of your innovation efforts.

With the pre-amble out of the way, this is our definition of innovation.

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