innovation clarity

Create your own definition of innovation

innovation clarity

As part of my auditing process, one of the key questions I ask is: what was the most recent innovation in your industry?

Depending on how this question is answered, it will tell me a few things:

  • How this company both defines and perceives innovation
  • If they are focused on innovation
  • If they are keeping tabs on their respective industry

That question is followed up with a similar but less obvious question: who is the most loved in your industry and why?. This one tells me if they even care about delighting their customers. But it can also tell me if they associate customer loyalty with innovation.

Anyway, the point is that the initial question, “what was the most recent innovation in your industry?”, can be framed differently and thus result in a different answer. This may be the reason why so many innovative ideas fail to gain traction within companies.

It is very simple, if your company says that innovation is a strategic priority, but there are no “innovation breeding habits” on display, you will not innovate. Like many, you are just paying lip service to the word.

It is like strategy, if no one understands what the company’s strategy is, then all is lost.

For example, a company I visited recently told me that they would innovate by updating its website (my follow up question was “how exactly?” and no concrete answer was given). Tsk, tsk, tsk…If your company thinks that “updating its website” is innovative, good luck trying to do anything disruptive.

What this means, is that if your company’s employees hear that “we will continually delight our customers by updating our website”, they will be completely uninspired and confused because that statement can mean many things to different people.

The end result, is that if you are an employee and you pitch your idea as a “true innovation that challenges the established order”, it might get rejected because it means the company is taking on an untested and unproven idea.

In other words, if it doesn’t fit with the mental model of your leaders, it won’t get noticed.

Point: Whether you believe innovation is something new applied, an increment or whatever, the bottom line is your organization needs to come up with collective definition of what innovation means to you. Not your competitors or anyone else.

Concreteness is very important.

Personally, I believe that the best way to know that you are moving towards innovation, is to not talk about it and just put the innovation breeding habits to action.

A company that does this, in my opinion, is Zappos. I’ve never heard or read Zappos use the word innovation. Yet, they are considered an innovative company. Not because they create new technology, but because they’ve redefined how customer service is delivered.

See what I mean? I don’t think they followed a pre-determined definition of innovation and followed it to the T. Most likely they have a very specific set of criteria of what exactly they want to do and how.

There is focus and purpose behind their actions, which lead to enthusiasm because progress is being made. And that, is what you want to communicate.

Photo credit: Clarity

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  • Great post, Jorge. Many companies froth at the mouth about “innovation” (“innofrenzy”) but fail at business basics. And a place where companies consistently fail is commercialization connecting with customers in the marketplace). Commercialization of new products, processes, and ideas is hard; it works best when your company is people-driven and market-driven, rather than technology-driven or “innovation”-driven.

    • Thank you. Great point, connecting with customers in the marketplace is where the rubber meets the road. It’s quite easy to distinguish tech-driven from people-driven. It is one of, the many, issues I have with tech clusters. It’s just about creating the technology, which is great, with minimal focus on the people who might actually use it.

      What are your thoughts on tech clusters?



      • Great question, Jorge. Tech clusters remind me of Jack Kemp’s “urban enterprise zones.” Widely embraced politically and in biz lit (HBR guru Michael Porter unequivocally declared that clusters increase productivity, drive innovation in the field, and stimulate new business). In reality, physical co-location and knowledge spillover/networking don’t drive innovation and economic impact as much as we might think. Cluster influence is dictated by many other market factors such as local revenue base, strength of demand, access to wealth and sources of finance, taxes, the labor climate, real estate prices, regulation, presence of supplier industries, competition and politics. Clusters can be vulnerable to rigidity, collective inertia, parochial groupthink — not to mention the negative effects of clustering like congestion, inflated costs, and the risk of overspecialization. Sustaining cluster performance over the long-term is mighty tough (witness the Silicon Valley slump, Raleigh/Durham’s withering tech triangle, Michigan’s automotive cluster). Research suggests that HIGHLY DIVERSIFIED CLUSTERS survive longer. And preliminary research from the University of Cambridge, London’s Cass Business School, and Europe’s Center for Economic Policy Research (research that post-dates Michael Porter’s work) suggests that we may have over-estimated the economic viability and impact of regional, national, and industry clusters.

        I’d rant a bit about Michael Porter’s skewed sample research design, but perhaps that’s better suited for an offline discussion. 😉

        In the end, companies tend to be better off when they focus on people and process rather than technology or techniques. People drive prosperity and innovation.

        Kirsten Osolind

        • Hi Kirsten,

          I share your view. Diversity breeds renewal. Most say they know this simple evolutionary principle, but when it’s time to put the wheels on the road it is completely ignored.

          For example, in Tijuana (like everywhere else it seems), they are trying to create an entrepreneurship movement. And like everywhere else, they take cues from Silicon Valley. That means more tech accelerators and tech clusters.

          What is funny to me is that, while the topic is about accelerating/seeding/funding/leading innovative projects, no innovation is actually happening.

          Why? Goes back to your point, which I agree with, about being people-driven.

          I actually wrote about this topic a year ago:

          Do technology clusters really drive innovation? –

          Now, I’m not opposed to funding ideas and technology. Am actually collaborating with one of these technology-driven accelerators and co-founding a Hispanic Entrepreneur Center in San Diego (they also want to be tech-driven which I’m opposed to). What I’m opposed is the way we’re approaching it:

          Why are we doing what everyone else does (technology) when we can become something completely different?

          What do you think?



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