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.