Innovation is one of the most commonly used words on the scene these days yet there is little understanding and agreement on what it actually means. Here are 15 experts defining what innovation means to them and here are 30 definitions from a variety of sources.

There are so many definitions of innovation many of which leave you more confused than enlightened on what innovation is and isn’t.

My Dilemma

In my work supporting entrepreneurs, corporates, non-profits, SMEs & governments to innovate, this definition challenge is a problem I needed to solve quickly.

“How would I be able to support them effectively if we have different ideas about what I am meant to help them do?”

I address this by creating a common understanding of what innovation is and what it is not before we actually start doing it.

This way we are able to pull in the same direction and use the same metrics to determine if we are successful or not.

A very simple definition

I found/settled on/coined/evolved/synthesised (I’m not quite sure which) this very simple definition for innovation which I have used for the last 7 years and which I would like to share with you.

It comes with a little rubric for knowing what is and isn’t innovation. Here it goes:

“Innovation is the implementation of new ideas that add value

Breaking it down

The definition is in three parts/conditions all of which must be satisfied for a project, product or service to be considered innovative

The absence of even one of the three factors voids the initiative from being called innovative.

Condition 1: New — The NEW Factor

This condition speaks to the freshness of the idea being tried in the context where it is being tried. To innovate, you have to generate and use ideas that are new and different from what has been tried before in this context. You can’t do things the way they have always been done and claim to be innovative.

New doesn’t mean no one has ever done it before. If it hasn’t been done in this context before, then it qualifies as new. A practice that is common place amongst doctors for example can find newness if implemented by lawyers for the first time. The idea of newness is context-dependent.

Condition 2: Implementation — The DONE Factor

This condition speaks to the action of doing. An idea has to be executed for it to be innovative. It’s where the rubber hits the road.

Simply having the idea doesn’t make an innovation. Innovation is in the doing not just in the thinking or conceptualisation. It is when you have successfully executed a solution so that it is actually in use and having the desired impact that you can be said to have innovated. It has to be DONE to be called innovation.

Condition 3: Adds Value — The VALUE ADD Factor

This condition speaks to the purpose of your idea in action. Implementing a new idea is only innovative if it has a clear purpose to solve a problem, meet a need or satisfy a want. There has a to be a clear gap that what is created aims to fill.

Think about all the different toothpaste brands on your supermarket shelf. Most look just like the rest. To innovate & thus differentiate, they have to find a gap (pun intended) that has not been filled otherwise it is variety for variety sake.

What Innovation is not?

All 3 conditions have to be satisfied for anything to be considered innovative. If only 2 of the 3 conditions are met, while it may good, it still falls short of being an innovation.

Done + New — Value Add = Novelty (it may be cool but what’s it’s purpose)

New + Value Add — Done = Creative Idea (so now you have the seed for an innovation, but still has to be implemented before it counts)
Value Add + Done — New = Improvement (stepwise tweaks & improvements are good but leave you open to disruption)

Innovation ≠ Invention

Invention is the act of creating something new to solve a problem. Invention becomes innovation when it is taken to market successfully. That’s why inventors collaborate with entrepreneurs or license their solutions so it can be taken to market as an innovation.

Innovation ≠ Creativity

Creativity is in the conceptualisation of interesting and new ideas. Only when those ideas are implemented do they become innovation. Creativity is about coming up with the big idea. Innovation is about EXECUTING the idea.

Innovation ≠ Technology

The use of new technology does not necessarily mean innovation has happened. Digital technology can be layered over an old and existing process. That is digitisation not innovation. The newness is not necessarily in the technology deployed. It is more in the essence of the idea implemented. Not all innovation involves technology, either as an enabler or as a result

Innovation ≠ Improvement

Minor tweaks and improvements of an existing process is not the same thing as innovating. Innovation means doing things in a new and different way. Not all improvements are innovations but all innovation ideally should lead to improvement in the output.

In Summary I hope you find this definition and the rubric useful for determining and assessing what is and isn’t innovation.

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