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Why ‘What Innovation is’ is meaningless

I have spent days, nay months, fighting with people on what innovation is and what it is not. Only then did I realize that the discussions and dilemma was unnecessary. This is because it did not matter one bit to the guys I was trying to convince and/or impress i.e. my clients

At the conceptual level, I found many ways to look at innovation –

  • Innovation was converting the million dollar idea to actual million dollars in the bank.
  • Innovation was the commercialisation of a new and novel idea.
  • Innovation was opportunity spotting and not problem solving.
  • Innovation was extracting value through a realignment of the existing pieces into a new picture.
  • Innovation was always breakthrough – something BIG.
  • Innovation was ‘step-change’ – doing something you weren’t doing till now – and getting great success (money, social benefits etc — whatever was desired) in same.

All these looked good till I realized that all these were pointing at different directions. Well almost, if not entirely.

The first one, the one about the million dollars idea and the actual dollars in the bank, served well to differentiate between creativity and innovation but didn’t tell you what innovation was.

What if the gaining of the million dollars (where none were coming in earlier) came from a common place idea? Do the dollar get any less sexy?

Is there such clear delineation between problem solving and opportunity spotting? Isn’t it true that solving a problem opens up several opportunities and most opportunities ( not all, though) are missed out only because one is not able to solve some problem coming in the way?

Can’t BIG be reached in two way – adding up many smalls ( the Toyota way ), and by a single big leap. Why is 40, which is 10+10+10+5+5, not the same 40 which comes from 1+39?

What exactly is a step-change? What is meant by doing something ‘that you weren’t doing till now’. Isn’t almost every step, from a minor improvement to a major route change, something ‘that you weren’t doing till then’?

I was going mad arguing with my self, when enlightenment dawned.

Our definitions simply DO NOT matter to the client. They are meaningless to the boss man, except to the Head L&D, maybe! To the guy on the Board, it was unnecessary clutter.

Mostly, he is wanting to make more money. It may come from the bottom line route or reducing wastages or that of the top line showing more sales. It may show as more sales or increased market share. Finally, he must get more money. For that, he will accept any solution that get him more money- whether from solving a problem or seeking an opportunity. Of course, he will pay much more if you could sell it to him as an ‘innovation’, rather than good old ‘good thinking’ :). (Innovation consultants do not share this easily, but I am in a charitable mood today)

There are some, though, who are willing to even lose some dollars in the hope that one day they will strike it big. But, striking big is important to all. But again, the dilemma exists — is it necessary to lose some now in order to make double that later? Isn’t a bird in hand worth two in the bush? What if we limit the time frame in which to view his decision?

I am confused again. Please help.

And, please, I seek help from the view point of a business owner, not that of an innovation consultant or academician. The money will come only if we can satisfy the guy who has it.

Do our definitions of innovation help him? Or, should we listen to what he wants and give it to him – even if that does not fit into our neat definitions of innovation?

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