Improving Our Innovation Definitions

It’s remarkable how a term can grow and change over time and that is no less true for the term innovation. What innovation is now is not what I used to and that’s probably as innovative of an idea as it gets. Just as nature’s seasons change, it’s time to update that definition.

I’ve been working on matters of innovation for my entire adult life. Before I even had a word for it I spent my days volunteering, working, and studying ways to creatively facilitate change-making through products and services. That meant paying attention to the psychology of how people change, the systems they operate in, the art and science of design (making) and the importance of evaluation to it all. That’s really what innovation is in practice.

While I’ve come up with my own definition to reflect this, it’s not sat quite right with me since I put it out there.

Why? And Why does it matter?

Innovation: What’s in a Definition?

Let me start by saying as long as whatever definition you use allows you to effectively communicate with others is all that matters. No one needs another ‘authoritative’ definition of a term that is all of ours to define. Too many people argue over definitions when what they really ought to care about is what these definitions mean in practice. Innovation isn’t an academic exercise, it’s about adapting, surviving, and growing in a complex world (and I think it’s pretty important as a result).

It is for that reason that I wanted to clearly define how I see innovation, use it, and want to communicate it to others.

I’m going to explain my thinking. I originally proposed the following:

Learning transformed into value by design.

What sets this apart from most standard definitions is the introduction of the word learning. Learning comes from attending, probing, and gaining feedback. If you aren’t doing any of these things then you are simply guessing and randomly throwing things out there. That might still produce value, but it is by poor design and mostly luck and therefore offers little guidance to others.

Innovation is intentional (even if luck and happenstance might play a role). We innovate by creating things. It’s this last statement that got me to reflect on the incompleteness of my earlier definition. Creativity requires some explicit inclusion.

Value is what sets an innovation apart from art or other creative acts. If it’s not got utility for someone, it isn’t an innovation.

From What It Is to What it Does

Another error I made was in the definition’s purpose. The original definition described what innovation is, not what’s involved in doing it. I want a definition that does both.

Creativity is what transforms thoughts, observations, experiences, and reflections into something. It’s the creative act that looks at different options and brings forth ideas. Creativity is also what transforms ideas into something coherent.

But there is one piece that is still missing: imagination. Imagination involves conceiving of what might be. Imagination is what goes beyond what is and envisions what could be. It isn’t as purpose-driven as creativity and even less so than design. But it’s critical to starting us off.

When we engage in foresight work, we are employing imagination as a part of design work. And if innovation is all about designing something to create value, then imagination has to be involved. Imagination helps us consider what value might look like and for whom.

It’s through our imagination that we see new possibilities and our production that we convert imagination through creativity into value. The design helix model that I’ve used to teach design thinking illustrates this below.

A New Innovation Definition

So what is this new definition of innovation?

Imagination, creativity, and learning transformed into value by design

This new definition is not pithy like the other. I’m not happy at having to add commas, but as a work in progress it seems to fit. For now, at least.

It brings in the central features of what it means to innovate into a single sentence.

  1. Imagination: The ability to envision different possibilities
  2. Creativity: The conversion and reworking of ideas into feasible things
  3. Learning: Attending, assessing, sensemaking, and revising based on experience, revisions, and putting things into the world
  4. Transformation: Taking all of these raw materials and turning them into a tangible, real thing
  5. Value: The core of what makes innovation different and utilization-focused
  6. Design: The entire process of intentional development and production that links it together.

What do you think? Does this idea of linking our imagination, to our creativity and our learning resonate with you?

Photo by Saul Flores on Unsplash

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