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.

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Jamie Notter