Innovation: The Simple Definition

Innovation definitions can sometimes create more confusion than clarity. Looking at what it is and does can change that.

Innovation might be one of the most confusing, mis-characterized words in business, government, and social enterprises. It doesn’t have to be.

If we leave aside all the buzzwords, models, and hype, innovation can be described in one simple statement:

Doing something new (with intent) to generate value.

Let’s break this down.

Doing something new… refers to action. While new ideas, new thinking, new insights, and changing perceptions are critical to innovation, without some translation into action, it’s not innovation. It’s what separates the art of innovation (ideas) from true design — which is about translating ideas into practice.

…with intent…. Innovation is about design — intent manifested into production. Innovation is done intentionally, even if the value that is produced isn’t always what we set out to generate. That’s why something that just happens randomly isn’t an innovation.

…to generate value refers to the most neglected part of innovation: evaluation. Without some means of assessing whether value has been created through the activity, we don’t have an innovation. It’s possible to create all kinds of new things — programs, processes, and products — that generate little value. Without value, it’s just something new.

Another way to frame this is:

Generating new value, by design.

Note that this definition doesn’t suggest how it’s done, by whom, when, where, on what scale or for what purpose. That’s the amazing thing about innovation: it can be big, small, complicated or incredibly simple.

What innovation is

An innovation can be an old idea brought back to life (e.g., making the home a space for healthcare).

It can be a small tweak to an existing idea (e.g., re-positioning content on a website in a new way to make it more readable, accessible and engaging).

It can be making products that allow us to re-imagine how they are used, reused, disposed of and recycled (e.g., the circular economy).

It can be proactive (e.g., innovating to create a new market for a product) or reactive (e.g., adapting to changing conditions) or some combination.

It can be transformative (e.g., the Gutenberg printing press revolutionized how codified knowledge was made available and the teaching of people to read changed how people related to — and generated — new ideas about the world).

It’s time to go beyond the buzzword of innovation. Three simple components — action, intent, evaluation — come together to help us all create more value for the world.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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