Ask 10 people for a definition of the word “innovation”, and you’re likely to get 10 different answers; maybe more depending on who you ask. Don’t believe me? Watch this video, where they ask attendees at an innovation conference:

What is innovation?

Some of the answers from the video:

“Innovation is producing something new.”
“Innovation is turning ideas into money”
“Innovation is the catalyst for economic growth”
“…the introduction of a new process or product”
“Creating value for users and creating new ways of doing things”
“Innovation is about turning ideas into commercially viable opportunities”

That’s quite a broad range of answers.

I don’t like the dictionary definition of innovation. It’s shown at the beginning of the video:

“the introduction of something new”.

Yes, from a pure linguistic perspective, that may be accurate. But when we think of society, of business and bringing change to it, that definition is inadequate.

My definition of innovation focuses not on the technology or the invention itself, but on bringing innovation to market so people can benefit from it.

Creating a better mousetrap is invention. Getting that mousetrap into people’s homes so they can catch mice more effectively is innovation.

It comes down to making a distinction between invention and innovation and understanding that distinction.

And just to be clear the difference is not about simply marketing or selling the invention. It’s about creating products or services that solve people’s problems or improve their ability to do something, getting those inventions into the hands of the people who can benefit from them, and ultimately improving their lives or experiences.

Now look around. In a competitive, technology-centric culture like the one we live in, innovation is top of mind for most companies.

Look at the Annual Reports of large companies, and you’ll see that word. Here’s an excerpt from the 10-K of GE a few years ago.

We are dependent on market acceptance of new product introductions and product innovations for continued revenue growth.

The markets in which we operate are subject to technological change. Our long-term operating results depend substantially upon our ability to continually develop, introduce, and market new and innovative products, to modify existing products, to respond to technological change, and to customize certain products to meet customer requirements.

There are numerous risks inherent in this process, including the risks that we will be unable to anticipate the direction of technological change or that we will be unable to develop and market new products and applications in a timely fashion to satisfy customer demands.

Read that description and look at the words I highlighted. Do those words sound familiar? 🙂

And here’s another video (focused on GE) that talks about the difference between invention and innovation. Listen to the whole thing, but most carefully around the 1:20 mark of the video.

Note yet again, the contrast between invention – what goes on in the engineering lab — and innovation — creating something people are willing to pay for.

Although the two are related, clearly innovation requires an understanding of market and customer needs and how to apply the technology to address them. And what else is that but fundamental product management?