What is Innovation?

I facilitated a staff retreat for a department within a larger association yesterday, and they asked me to talk to them about innovation. So instead of borrowing a definition of innovation from one of the many innovation experts out there, I decided to invent my own definition:

 

Innovation is change that unlocks new value.

Innovation is more than just change. Hiring a new marketing specialist for your 10-person marketing department is change. Now you have 11. But that’s not innovation. And that incremental change might even create some new value (the other common part of innovation definitions), but for me the idea of “unlocking” new value is the key to innovation.

As we create our organizations, products, or strategies, we build systems. And the systems work. They’re great. They generate value for people. But as we build them, they naturally create some barriers. In order to create the value we’re creating, we wall off some potential. We forego the opportunity to create a different kind of value. This is natural and good. We have to make choices when we do the work of creating products, strategies, and organizations.

But while we do this, the world keeps changing and evolving. Our environment is changing. And eventually we run out of the incremental value we can squeeze out of our systems just by tweaking and adjusting. That value that we locked away because of the choices we made is now bigger than what we’re getting out of our current system. And you can only access that value through innovation—by changing what you’re doing and how you’re doing it in ways that are deep enough to access this locked-away value.

You can’t access that value just by making tiny adjustments. You have to reach into the middle of your system and make stark changes. Changes that challenge the basic assumptions of your current system. Changes that are going to generate some confused and maybe even angry responses from people in the system. Changes that will generate some conflict. This is innovation. This is the key to unlocking that new value. This is why innovation is hard work, and people all too often default to simply adjustments because it’s easier (but less effective).

Obviously not ALL of your work is going to be about innovation all the time. Sometimes a tweak is just what the doctor ordered. But if you’re never doing innovation, then you should be nervous, because the environment is always changing, and that locked-away value is always growing. And if you want to have access to it right when you need it, you better have been laying the groundwork, because as I said, innovation is hard work.

Update: We included this definition in a discussion of innovation in our new book, When Millennials Take Over, in case you want a reference to cite other than this blog.

image credit

Improve Cultural Alignment. Increase Employee Retention. Start today with WorkXO.

19 Comments

  1. Jon Benjamin
    12.09.2012 at 12:18 pm

    Cool new definition—I would like to redefine the word DRIVEN! “Are you driven!?” Doesn’t this imply red-lining your car? If my car has been driven it has devalued. The American office workforce is so driven—we are drivin ourselves into the ground.

    • 13.09.2012 at 8:15 am

      Amen, Jon. “Driven” is a part of our extensive use of machine-based language and metaphors in organizations. It’s not the future.

  2. 12.09.2012 at 9:52 pm

    Good work, Jamie. A few days ago I had a reason to come up with a fresh definition for what it means to be an innovative association, and this is what I came up with: “To engage members in the creative and effective development and delivery of increasing levels of member value.” I also like your emphasis on “unlocking.” For an association, is member engagement one of the key mechanisms by which that unlocking occurs?

    • 13.09.2012 at 8:20 am

      Well, I think innovation (like leadership) is a system capacity, rather than something left to a scarce few “brilliant individuals,” so in that sense, yes, member engagement means you bring more voices to the conversation. Engaged members bring their passion to the table (I would think), which will keep them there through the messy, hard parts, which is very important in getting through the “unlocking” process. But I would think that having member engagement doesn’t “guarantee” innovation, necessarily.

      • 14.09.2012 at 9:32 am

        Agree about member engagement not guaranteeing anything. But can an association that doesn’t engage its members in the value creation process be considered an innovative association?

        • 14.09.2012 at 9:41 am

          Well, yes. In the sense that an association can certainly unlock new value (like innovating a product or innovating its management) without engaging members in the process. I would think in some areas, there’s an advantage to NOT engaging members in order to bring in new perspectives. I’m sure some kind of ven diagram would help here, but I just don’t see member engagement as a requisite part of innovation.

          But maybe I’m not fully understanding what you mean by “innovative association?”

          • 16.09.2012 at 9:48 am

            I’m not sure myself, Jamie. Just been thinking a lot lately about what it takes for an association to be successful and what role the members themselves play in that. Can an association succeed without engaging members in the value creation process? I think yes, but wonder how accurate it is to keep calling such an organization an association.

      • 10.11.2015 at 11:16 am

        Interesting defintion and yes, innovation is a system capacity. But I am not convinced that innovation is limited to the things we did NOT choose when we created our “system”. Innovation is not Always locked in, may also come from the “outside”. I would therefore replace “unlocked” by “created”?

  3. […] I facilitated a staff retreat for a department within a larger association yesterday, and they asked me to talk to them about innovation. So instead of borrowing a definition of innovation from one of the many innovation experts out there, I decided to invent my own definition: Innovation is change that unlocks new value. Innovation is more than just change. Hiring a new marketing specialist for your 10-person marketing department is change. Now you have 11. But that’s not innovation. And that incremental change might even create some new value (the other common part of innovation definitions), but for me the idea of “unlocking” new value is the key to innovation.  […]

  4. 13.09.2012 at 9:27 am

    […] of content from my client presentation about innovation earlier this week. Yesterday I gave you my simple definition of innovation. After the definition, I talked about three different kinds of innovation. I think it’s […]

  5. […] I facilitated a staff retreat for a department within a larger association yesterday, and they asked me to talk to them about innovation. So instead of borrowing a definition of innovation from one of the many innovation experts out there, I decided to invent my own definition: Innovation is change that unlocks new value. Innovation is more than just change. Hiring a new marketing specialist for your 10-person marketing department is change. Now you have 11. But that’s not innovation. And that incremental change might even create some new value (the other common part of innovation definitions), but for me the idea of “unlocking” new value is the key to innovation.  […]

  6. […] What is Innovation? Innovation is change that unlocks new value. Innovation is more than just change. Hiring a new marketing specialist for your 10-person marketing department is change. Now you have 11. But that’s not innovation. […]

  7. 17.09.2012 at 10:49 am

    Nice post Jamie!

    Love this quote (from “It smelled like Pizza” about Apple that was hotlinked in Will Associations Go from Good to Great to Gone” that you shared via Twitter this morning.

    “As Apple designer Christopher Stringer said during the trial, ‘Our role is to imagine products that don’t exist and guide them to life.’”

    Isn’t that a key for associations: bring innovation to life?!

    Steve

    • 30.09.2012 at 2:31 pm

      Steve, are you & Jamie saying the same thing? I ‘m thinking that the ” unlocking” piece is like “bringing to life.”

  8. […] I facilitated a staff retreat for a department within a larger association yesterday, and they asked me to talk to them about innovation. So instead of borrowing a definition of innovation from one of the many innovation experts out there, I decided to invent my own definition: Innovation is change that unlocks new value. Innovation is more than just change. Hiring a new marketing specialist for your 10-person marketing department is change. Now you have 11. But that’s not innovation. And that incremental change might even create some new value (the other common part of innovation definitions), but for me the idea of “unlocking” new value is the key to innovation.  […]

  9. 30.09.2012 at 2:32 pm

    Jamie, Eric & Steve–great discussion here! Good food for thought.

  10. […] to adapt to your industry or to develop new ideas. What’s even better is that you get to unlock new value and distinguish yourself as a leader. Don’t believe me? Take a minute to reference your […]

%d bloggers like this: