Innovation – The ‘wow’ factor 

If there is one word that is bandied around more than any other at the moment, it has to be ’innovation’.

It seems everyone is trying it on for size – governments, individuals using it on their resumes, ‘innovation hubs’ springing up, and of course the constant release of new technology devices.  But what does it mean and why are so many people using it as a catch-all, ’stuff bucket’ term?

I read an article recently on iTnews where the author, in reference to Australia’s Senate Economics Committee’s review of the National Innovation System, argues innovation should be understood in terms of invention.   He suggests that all inventions are innovative but very few innovations are inventive.

I disagree. An invention is not necessarily innovative for two reasons – context and ‘wow’ factor.

Plus, there are more routes to innovation than simply through invention.

Let’s look at a few explanations I’ve found – none of which sufficiently answer the question for me:

  • Melissa A. Schilling in Strategic Management of Technological Innovation – “innovation is the practical implementation of an idea into a new device or process.”

That doesn’t quite cut it for me, what if the idea is rubbish?  Or what if the idea is simply a small change or improvement to an existing idea, is that still innovation?

  • In the iTnews article mentioned above it says “in the disciplines of science, technology and business, ‘innovation’ generally refers to a process or outcome that is novel, at least to the actors involved.”

Again, this doesn’t seem right because it can’t just be novel for novel’s sake.

  • Microsoft in their white paper Joined Up Innovation comes a little closer – “the process of developing better products, services, processes and business models, and then commercialising those ideas by building new ideas around them.”

The word ‘better’ grabs my attention in this example.  A product or process must make something better for someone, to be innovative.

So innovation isn’t just turning an idea into a product or process, the fact that it is novel doesn’t qualify it to be innovative, and there must be something ‘better’ about the product or process.

After much debate in our office and drawing on windows with chalk pens, this is the diagram we at GWI have come up with, to explain innovation versus invention.

There are 4 key elements to this diagram.

  1. Starting from the top – the innovation must have the ‘wow’ factor.  By ‘wow’ I mean it must either fundamentally change the way we live, our ideas, notions or long held beliefs.  Ask yourself this – was going to the moon novel or pure innovation, what change did it make?  Was there really a giant step for mankind?
  2. The context in which the process or product is applied also determines whether something is innovative or not.  In one context the product might be utterly worthless but in another context it has changed the way we live.  Take the advertisement of the grandfather who uses the iPad as a chopping board. Context is subjective; one person may perceive a product as innovative as it has changed their life, while another person may not perceive that at all.
  3. Strongly related to context are the three routes to innovation – invention, novel improvement and exaptation.

    Invention – An invention is just that until context is applied to it; when it can be proven to solve a problem or need. For example, who would have thought the invention of weak adhesive would be useful? But when used on the back of sticky notes, stuck to your computer to remind you to finish off that piece of work you said you’d done, and then ripped off before your boss sees – problem solved!

    Novel improvement – If you already have a product or process, just making a minor improvement shouldn’t be considered innovative unless the improvement is so novel or different that it meets the criteria of the ‘wow’ factor.  This challenges the idea that you can categorise innovation into ‘radical’ (an innovation that is very new and different from prior solutions) and ‘incremental’ (an innovation that makes a relatively minor change from [or adjustment to] existing practices) as Melissa A. Schilling suggests.   I’ll use smart phones as an example: turning mobile phones into mini computers has revolutionised the way people in developed countries interact and communicate.  But the new Apple products that have just been released, iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch?  I’d argue that the former is just a slight improvement and the latter is just plain novel.

    Exaptation – A term stolen from nature, this is used to describe when an adapted trait shifts its function.  Bird feathers are a classic example: initially they may have evolved for temperature regulation, but later were adapted for flight.
    In innovative terms, an initial invention or an improvement to an existing product or process is good in its own right but when its function is changed (a change in the context in which it is applied) it becomes brilliant and innovative.  Facebook is a good example – this was created to rate the attractiveness of the girls in their university but by opening it up to more of their friends and making a few adjustments, the concept of Facebook exploded into the most prolific social networking platform today.

  4. Whether the route comes from invention, novel improvement or exaptation, the reason an innovation may occur in the first place is because either a problem or need has been identified, which the innovation is trying to solve/meet; it is the output from a great idea or quite simply, it is the product of a complete accident.

So when government, organisations and prospective employees tout how innovative they are, ask if what they’ve achieved fundamentally changed our beliefs or the way we live. Have they made a generational change?

As for whether this is important to distinguish, I firmly believe it is.  With the advent of ‘big data’, and especially ‘open data’, we are on the cusp of some extraordinarily innovative solutions to various known and indeed unknown problems.  These aren’t just novel, they aren’t just slight improvements, they are products and processes creating generational change.  This is fundamentally different and should be acknowledged as such.