Defining Innovation

The word “innovation”, and it’s many definitions, has been an ongoing source of frustration. And clearly, I’m not alone in this.

“Innovation” is one of those words that, through casual overuse, has come to signify a wide array of distinct concepts – in some sense, the word is literally losing definition, like an out-of-focus photograph that manages to become blurrier every time you look at it.

These days, anytime anyone does something vaguely new, or a new feature gets added to some gadget or other, the innovation word gets flung about. Indeed, the word is used with the same reckless abandon as those other favourites of jargon-loving MBA types, “solutions” and “disruption”, rendering it increasingly meaningless.

There is a cost to such cavalier usage – if we don’t really understand how to use the word accurately, we can’t easily identify real innovation when it happens, which makes it difficult to, well, innovate.

Davin O’Dwyer from The Irish Times

I’ve wrestled with this topic regularly in attempts to find / create common language to work with. Trying to establish innovation as a core competency across an organization is really challenging when you can’t even clearly agree on what the word means. And yet, we can agree that innovation remains a crucial component for creating compelling and useful products and services that will shape the future of our organizations.

Technology analyst Horace Dediu wrote a compelling essay on the misunderstanding of innovation. In it, he breaks down some definitions of innovation and the activities surrounding it to give the definitions better context. I found this to be very helpful in getting beyond simple definitions and starting to move towards understanding and meaning.

Asymco Innovation Definition

asymco diagram

Novelty: Something new

Creation: Something new and valuable

Invention: Something new, having potential value through utility

Innovation: Something new and uniquely useful

Horace Dediu from

Simple, concise, and uniquely useful. Now that’s something we can work with.

Get Unsettled to Find New Possibilities

I don’t know how else to make a movie except to try and find some aspect of the experience that I haven’t done before. Because if I’ve done it before, I’m fearless. And I don’t work well when I’m fearless. I’m not as good a filmmaker if I know exactly what I’m doing every step of the way. But when I don’t have all of my comforts with me, then I get really really insecure, and that insecurity opens me up to possibilities.

I need to get to set in the morning feeling a little upset to my stomach. If I feel a little bit unsettled, I feel more able to take risks to rescue myself.

Steven Spielberg Oprah’s Next Chapter (In Making the Movie, Lincoln)

I don't know about intentionally pushing for an upset stomach every morning, but unsettled enough to be out of the comfort zone definitely hits the mark. By definition it's not comfortable, but it opens the door to push the boundaries and find the new possibilities we're looking for.

It's a good reminder to get out there and push past the comfort zone today.

(via Michael Hyatt)


Over the past year, I’ve become increasingly aware of the power of gratitude and it’s something I’m working to incorporate more intentionally into my life. So here’s a couple things relevant to the area of innovation that I’m grateful for. While there are challenges with living and working in the turbulence and constant change we’ve found as the new “normal” in today’s business world, I am profoundly grateful to be a part of it. I think we live in the most amazing time of history. The technology, tools, and connectedness that has come along with those tools have made the impossible possible in so many ways.

One of my favorite pieces of the innovation puzzle is connecting seemingly disparate ideas and technologies to make something new and useful. For me, that’s the core of the whole thing and it’s what keeps me digging around in this space looking for new connections.

On a related note, here’s a paraphrased quote from Rodney Mullen (you’ll remember his if you were into skateboarding in the early 80’s like I was…) at a TEDx talk speaking on creativity and innovation.

”Innovation is about knowing technology so well that you can manipulate it and steer it in ways it was never intended for." Rodney Mullen, skateboarder and innovator

Check out the video for some entertaining and insightful commentary on what it means to innovate:

And lastly, I’m thankful for readers like you that follow along here. Have a great Thanksgiving holiday!

Collaboration: Important Enough to Hire and Fire Over?

Interesting news bit yesterday from Apple with some executive level leadership changes. Scott Forstall, Senior VP for iOS Software, has been shown the door and his responsibilities have been redistributed to other execs. John Gruber does a solid job summarizing the situation over at Daring Fireball. Apple’s press release frames it as “changes to increase collaboration”. An interesting way to put it. Particularly in light of Forstall’s long track record with the company. His work with Steve Jobs dates back to NeXT in the early 90’s and he has been in charge of developing iOS from the very beginning. iOS has come a long way since its debut in 2007. It’s dramatically impacted the mobile phone industry and also shifted Apple’s business tremendously along the way. The bottom line is that under Forstall’s leadership, Apple released an amazing product and amassed an amazing amount of cash because of it.

So why was Forstall pushed out? Of course the details are thin, but the signs point strongly to his ability (and lack thereof) to work with others on the executive team. He had become an increasingly polarizing and abrasive figure within the company. To the point that he and Jony Ive (Senior VP of Design) wouldn’t even sit in the same room for meetings. In short, he had become an obstacle to collaboration.

After reading Steve Jobs’ biography, and hearing about how hard he was to work with and the ways he could be downright mean to coworkers, I’ve wondered how the “new” Apple will choose to define itself. And now we get a glimpse of where they’re trying to go. Even at Apple, collaboration is treated as a cornerstone to innovation. To the point that even stellar performance doesn’t trump an inability / unwillingness to work collaboratively with the team.

Today’s question then is how seriously are you taking collaboration in your organization? Is it worth hiring and firing over? Or are you tolerating certain people who have set themselves up as roadblocks? That attitude doesn’t go unnoticed throughout the rest of the company and it directly impacts its ability to work together towards innovation. Take a moment today to look for ways you can encourage collaboration among your teams. The results will be well worth the effort.

Every Project is an Opportunity to Innovate

What would it take to be the innovation leader in your particular industry? When we talk about innovation, it’s easy to focus on looking for the one big idea or project that’s going to change everything. One piece of brilliant work that will redefine the company and make everybody sit up and pay attention. Except that it doesn’t really work that way. At best you turn out a great product and improve things for a little while. But almost immediately, you’re back to the question of “what’s next … can we do it again?”

If you’re serious about innovating, it can't just be something tacked on to key projects. It’s a mindset that needs to become a central part of the organization's culture. Every project is an opportunity to innovate. And to be successful, every one of those projects needs an element of innovation.

Each of them is an opportunity to make a product or service that better serves the needs of your customer. But keep in mind that innovations don’t have to be “big” things. Small things done with the right focus can have gigantic impact. Get in the habit of cranking out small innovations at every opportunity and you’ll be amazed at their combined impact.

Let's get practical: On the project you’re working on right now, how are you innovating? How are you meeting that customer need in new and better ways? If you’re not creating at least some small innovation with this project, pause to take a hard look at it. If the project is worth the time and resources being put into it, it’s worth making the effort to ship something innovative.

Let’s make the most of these opportunities and use every chance we get to make innovation a reality.

Focus on Customer Value to Innovate

When we talk about innovation, we’re often talking about coming up with new ideas. Ideas that bring new technology to market, or change our approach to customer service, or introduce a new product category. I’d like to propose that innovation is much more than just coming up with great ideas.

Are you inventing or innovating?

While idea generation is a key part of the innovation process, it’s only one piece of the tool kit. It’s part of the ‘How’ of the process and it needs the context of ‘What’ and ‘Why’ to be effective. Without that context, we often confuse the means with the ends and our results suffer because of it.

How often have you seen projects hit the launch phase only to realize nobody is really interested in buying what’s been created? Pretty painful to say the least. And more than a little expensive when you consider the investment and opportunity costs attached to the project.

From Wikipedia: Innovation is the development of new customer value through solutions that meet new needs, unarticulated needs, or old customer and market needs in new ways.

To build a successful innovation strategy, the core of the process must be centered on delivering new customer value. It establishes the ‘What’ and ‘Why’ for the project. The team can then clearly say “we are creating value for our customers in this way and by building this specific thing”. It becomes the framework that all subsequent design decisions hang on.

Creating ideas outside of this customer-centric focus is better referred to as “invention”. Many great products and services have come out of the raw process of invention but the results are inconsistent at best. Building a new product strategy around invention is a risky approach.

Adding focus to innovate

When you look across the projects and initiatives currently underway in your organization, is there clear customer value being created for each?

One of the quickest and most effective ways to boost the quality of your innovation process’s output is to get clear on the customer value being created. Get that value identified and stated in clear and concrete terms. Make sure the team has this as their overriding objective through every step of the process. It becomes the guiding compass for the entire project and helps ensure you’ve created something of value for your customers.

Today’s Bias for Action: Take a look at your top project and see if you can clearly state the customer value being created. Now ask somebody on the team to do the same. If its not crystal clear, schedule the conversation(s) to get that clarified ASAP.

Recipe for a Successful Day? Go Make Something

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been hacking my way through a fresh pass at “career planning” and figuring out what’s next for me professionally. Time to think and retool is one of the upsides to “unplanned career pivots” (i.e. getting laid off). While reading a post from Jonathan Fields’ blog yesterday, I was reminded of something important I tend to forget: Our primary opportunity each day is to create. Unfortunately, it’s easy to lose sight of that and fill our days with meetings and busywork to the exclusion of making time to create.

“… it’s about the work. The pursuit of knowledge, closing the gap between what I’m capable of creating and what I am currently creating. Finding and sharing meaning. Living into the insatiable curiosity, the experiments and conversations and desire to share whatever the process yields.” Jonathan Fields

He talks about going into “Maker” mode and being really intentional about this. Setting aside serious blocks of time, attention, and energy to focus on creating the big things we’re capable of. Cranking out a pile of truly creative and valuable work. But that can only happen if we’re willing to make it a priority.

That’s my goal with this time “off”. How can I dig in and build the body of work necessary to support the dreams and ideas that have been relegated to the “someday / maybe” list for far too long? It starts with choosing to make something. To create. To be intentional about it. It might seem small and inconsequential … but it’s not. It matters a whole lot.

What are you going to make today?

Finding Opportunity in Chaos

Chaos is the New Standard by Hugh MacLeod (
Chaos is the New Standard by Hugh MacLeod (

“This image is for all those folks out there who use the chaos of their industries as an opportunity to re-invent, re-shape and develop new models for making money and changing the world.”

Hugh MacLeod / (from his daily cartoon newsletter)

The only constant is change. Tired cliché? Yes. But more true in today’s world than ever before.

In nearly every industry and space I’ve been involved with, this seems like the only viable strategy. Either embrace the chaos or get comfortable with irrelevancy.

Catastrophe in the making? Or the biggest opportunity we’ve ever seen?

I’m going all in on the latter.

Getting Out of Bystander Mode

How do we break through the “bystander effect”? What does it take to get people to act instead of being held captive by the inertia of a passive group? Al Pittampalli[1] picked up a good idea from an effective panhandler tactic:

Some panhandlers have gotten smarter. They work with a partner who pretends to be an ordinary commuter. The partner gives first and we know what happens next…

I constantly fight against this effect when trying to shift ingrained corporate cultures. Too often a team can get stuck in negative attitudes, become passive, and effectively stall out. At which point, the ability to execute successful projects goes out the window.

The more entrenched the (negative) culture is, the more desperate the need for an effective tool to break through and redirect. Leadership by example is an excellent way to do just that. I hadn’t thought of it in quite these terms, but this is exactly what I’ve found to be effective over the years. If I can win over the most difficult person on the team and help them shift their thinking (and actions), they can become a phenomenal asset to helping win over the rest of the team.

As team leaders, it’s our opportunity to focus our leadership efforts on key areas to create tipping points for our teams. We can help shape the culture of our teams and in doing so, significantly help them be more successful. The challenge for me is to keep this strategy front of mind and be more intentional with using it.

Have you used this strategy effectively before? How about other ideas for how to shift a team towards action?

  1. Al’s book “Read This Before Our Next Meeting” is a must read for changing how we approach meetings in the current corporate world.  ↩

A Toolbox Filled With Unused Tools

“Choose your tools, enjoy them, then make something amazing.”

David duChemin

I’ve been stalled with wanting to (re)engage on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and the like. I spent several years chasing all the very latest new toys online to be one of the early adopter cool kids. And then I got sick of it. So I stopped. It all started seeming pretty meaningless and like a colossal time suck.

I think I’m finally getting my head around why I’m so skeptical with all of it.

Back in 2009 I read several pieces by photographer David duChemin pushing for a reality check in the photographic community. His take is well summarized with his slogan of “Gear is good, Vision is better”. One of the downsides to the many online photography communities is that they’ve seriously fueled the shared obsession many photographers have with their gear. Cameras and the associated gear are very cool. But it’s too easy to lose perspective and forget the purpose of all that gear is to make beautiful and compelling images with it.

I realized I’d gotten myself lost on the gear side of things and forgotten to actually take pictures. duChemin provided a much needed wake up call. Now I spend far less time on photography as a hobby, but when I do dig in, the time is spent almost entirely on shooting and processing pictures. The endless surfing and forum browsing are notably absent. I have a similar story from when I stopped obsessing about guitar / music gear and got on with actually practicing more. The results have been similar, I’ve gotten better at my craft and I really don’t miss the noise from all the peripheral activities.

I think this ties directly to the state of things in the internet world right now. For the past few years, everybody has been buzzing about whatever is shiny and new. To the exclusion of figuring out what to actually do with these tools. The result has been a giant echo chamber of meta noise with people on the internet talking about the internet. Personally, I’ve become far more interested in seeing what meaningful work can be done with these tools. How are they impacting the rest of the world? How are they empowering artists of all kinds to do their work and share it with an engaged audience?

Thankfully, there are plenty of examples of interesting people doing amazing work out there. Unfortunately, they can get lost in the noise from the rest of the crowd. So I’m choosing to focus on a couple things: Shutting down the extraneous noise to focus on those artists getting on with doing great work. And secondly, figuring out what I’m personally going to do with these revolutionary tools and the unprecedented level of opportunity they’ve brought along. It’s time to get the tools out of the toolbox, get them dirty, and start making things.

Defining Creativity

What does it mean to be creative? J. Eddie Smith over at ‘Practically Efficient’ nails it with a very thoughtful post on the topic. Head over there and give it a read. (And seriously go add his blog to your RSS reader.) As someone who’s spent a fair amount of time kicking around the concepts of “innovation” and “creativity” in the product development space Eddie’s summary really hit home for me.

Creatives […] have this highly coveted form of social capital. Creative success echoes envy in six words: “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Our current culture seems to be increasingly wanting the recognition of being creative without the hard work up front. Not really surprising I guess … but sort of depressing some days.

The process of creativity isn’t glamorous. It’s simply about hard work, the management of emotions, and delayed showmanship.

Real creativity is the dull and failure-fraught art of giving people things they never asked for.

The “magic” is sitting down and cranking, sweating the details, and seeing where things go from there. And sadly, most of us are unwilling to do this with enough consistency to find that magic. I know I sure need the reminders to sit back down and stay after it.

What’s your take? Is he on target? Oversimplifying? Under this definition, do you still want to be more “creative” day to day?

Aspiring Towards Bigger Goals

“The impossible exists only until we find a way to make it possible” Mike Horn

What can you accomplish in one year? That’s the title of a recent post by photographer Chase Jarvis that got me thinking about setting (and pursuing) bigger goals. And wondering if we’re settling for too little because we get hung up on being “realistic” and only going after what we think is possible.

When I look back at the past five years, I see a lot of good learning experiences but frustratingly little for lasting results (professionally at least). Navigating a major economic downturn, corporate restructuring(s), and the world in general changing and churning at an amazing pace, I feel like I’ve gotten a bit lost in the mix. Survival has taken precedence over pursuing big dreams and that shift has taken a toll. It’s time to shift back.

Jarvis’ post talks about South African born / Swiss based explorer Mike Horn and some of the awesome things he’s accomplished over the same five years. He custom built the Pangaea, a 115 foot yacht they refer to as a “4 x 4 of the seas”, and subsequently launched the four year Pangaea Expedition. The expedition has already covered more than 140,000 miles in its quest for “young adults [to] experience and explore the natural world, learn about its challenges, find possible solutions, and above all, act swiftly to help change things for the better.”

Horn’s passion and commitment have fueled an impressive list on his resumé. And he’s got me wondering why I’m not chasing down bigger things. My initial read is that it’s a combination of a lack of focus, not thinking big enough, and being too passive in accepting the challenges around me as fixed boundaries instead of obstacles to get around.

It’s time to think big, refocus, and get after it. There’s no good reason not to and that clock is ticking.

So what are you going after in the next twelve months? Go big.

It's Time to be Brave

A pass at another Seth Godin riff on what we’re investing into our careers.[1]

If I’m going to invest more into my career (or really any pursuit I want to grow in), it’s worth pausing to figure out what kind of investment that should be. What will give me the best return? What will be sustainable for long enough to have measurable impact?

The default answer has almost always been time. And that answer is certainly supported by theories like the 10,000 hours required for mastery as presented in Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’. Beyond that though, is that really the point for differentiation in a world increasingly crowded with options? Mastery at a given skillset seems increasingly like the entry fee. From there, it would seem that we need something more.

Godin argues that the real option is to “take the intellectual risks and do the emotional labor you’re capable of.” It’s far easier to hide and take the “that’s not my job” route. In fact, that’s what the vast majority of the crowd is currently doing. And we have the results to show for it. The cumulative effects of that choice are terrifying. If we continue to embrace that attitude, our companies and jobs go away. Other people (who are willing to take those risks) will get those opportunities while we fade further into irrelevance.

The frustrating part is that we’re capable of so much more. We could make the choice to actually take those risks, to step out to make a difference. Ironically, those risks are smaller than they seem and smaller still in comparison to the risk of doing nothing and maintaining the status quo. Even small (consistent) steps in this direction make a big difference. Big enough to start creating momentum that can affect large scale change.

And still it comes down to today and today’s choices. Am I willing to do more than talk about this? Am I willing to take the risks and lead? It’s a choice I struggle with nearly every day. But for today, I’m choosing to push on regardless of feeling like I’m headed upstream.

  1. Yes, this is turning into more of a theme here than I expected. But the bottom line is that he writes thought provoking things, and writing helps me process those ideas (and hopefully turn them into action).  ↩


I have read a lot of "personal development" books over the years. And it could be argued that "a lot" could be defined as "too many". Some were really helpful, some a colossal waste of time, and most landed somewhere in between.

In that big pile of books (and so many more out there), there's a never ending stream of how-to's, tips and tricks, and bulleted lists outlining the precise steps you need to take to find success in whatever particular endeavor you're interested in. The more specific the instructions, and the bolder the claims for success, the more books they sell. Everybody seems to want to be told what to do and how to find that failure-proof way to succeed.

Except that it doesn't work that way.

The world keeps changing at an accelerating pace and the terrain around us seems to shift substantially every time we turn around. Which makes someone else's printed map pretty useless. Collecting and trying to use those maps can actually do more harm than good because they give us a false sense of security. Instead of learning to be better at making our own maps we're following a path towards yesterday's success. Meanwhile things keep changing.

So I'm trying to be a lot more picky in where I invest my time and attention. The books, blogs, programs, etc, that provide map-making tools (to help me get better at making my own map) are worth their weight in gold. The ones selling a "guaranteed" map are worthless (except for making money for the author...).

Courage for Problem Solving

From a couple weeks back, Seth Godin talks about “solving problems (vs identifying them”. He talks about how we can be hesitant to identify problems when we might not be able to solve it. And that it can seem easier (or feel better) to avoid the whole mess by ignoring it. That way we don’t have to deal with the awkwardness of not knowing how to solve the problems. 

Another side of this discussion is where we can be all too eager to point out problems … but only to complain about them. To me, that is the bigger (or at least more common) issue. We settle for complaining about things and talking about how someone sure ought be doing something about all these problems.

In both instances we miss the opportunity. We need the courage and discipline to honestly assess the situation, identify the real (and oftentimes big) problems, and then commit ourselves to the hard work of taking real action towards crafting solutions.

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