What Is Innovation?
Everywhere you go, people are talking about innovation. There are conferences and gurus, workshops and webinars, apostles and practitioners.
But what is it, really? It’s hard to go about the practice of innovation when there is so much confusion about what innovation actually is. Some have proposed frameworks (i.e. discovery/invention/innovation), but to be honest, I don’t find them particularly helpful.
It seems obvious to me that a common sense definition of innovation is that it is a process of finding novel solutions to important problems. Unfortunately, in order to make innovation palatable to organizations, many have tried to narrow the definition to make it more purpose driven. That’s getting it backwards, after all it is we that need to adapt.
A Question Concerning Technology
Okay, let’s start from the beginning. Clearly, the reason that businesses are interested in innovation is that we are living in an increasingly technological world and, for any business to consistently earn a return, it needs to develop technology.
As Kevin Kelly points out in What Technology Wants, even the use of the word “technology” is relatively new, primarily dating back to the middle of the last century. So it’s not something we have a lot of experience with, like operations or accounting.
Martin Heidegger was the first person to seriously tackle the issue in his classic 1949 essay, The Question Concerning Technology, where he argues that technology both involves uncovering (i.e. bringing forth) and enframing (i.e. putting in context of a particular use).
The definition is extremely insightful and useful, not least because we tend to think of technology (including things like legal concepts and business processes) as something we create rather than uncover. As I pointed out in an earlier post about how technology evolves, we create technology by harnessing and then exploiting forces that already exist.
So, if we want to innovate by creating new technologies, we need to first discover things and then figure out how to put them to good use.
Penicillin vs. DNA
To see where the discussion of innovation often runs into trouble it’s helpful to look at two often cited discoveries: That of penicillin and the structure of DNA.
Penicillin was discovered by accident when Alexander Fleming left a petri dish open and came back to find the bacteria had died. He traced the phenomenon to a strange mold that we know know as the wonder drug, penicillin.
The structure of DNA, on the other hand, was no accident. In fact, many were searching for it, including Linus Pauling, the greatest chemist of the day. The answer, however, eluded everyone except for two relatively unknown researchers, James Watson and Francis Crick, who combined several novel approaches to solve the problem.
The difference is clear: Both are discoveries and technologies, but only one is the product of innovation. We learn little by studying the discovery of penicillin (except, of course to pay attention), but a great deal from how Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA. They were, in a very real sense, the first open innovators.
One popular way to frame the innovation process is to break it down into discovery (new knowledge), invention (new technologies) and innovation (useful things like products and services). However, it doesn’t take much thinking to realize that this isn’t very useful because it confuses work products with work processes.
For example, both penicillin and the discovery of DNA were both the products of discovery (and eventually, by Heidegger’s definition, became technologies), but in one the process was accidental and the other the process was innovative, combining new techniques in chemistry, biology and physics in ways no one had thought of before.
And that is a very crucial point. It is absolutely senseless to argue what constitutes a commercial product or service (it is, after all, a matter of context rather than of quality), but finding novel solutions to important problems is a crucial component of modern business life.
The Innovation Management Matrix Revisited
To finish up, I’d like to return to an earlier discussion on Innovation Excellence about whether innovation needs a purpose by introducing a modified version of the Innovation Management Matrix that I published in Harvard Business Review.
Each of the four quadrants represents an area of innovation in that each requires finding novel solutions to important problems as well as the opportunity to create new products and services. (If you doubt the importance of quantum teleportation, see my earlier article on the next digital paradigm).
By arbitrarily determining that Netflix and the iPod are innovations and the discovery of the structure DNA and quantum teleportation are not, we would be unnecessarily limiting ourselves and therefore missing opportunities. After all, one man’s purpose is another man’s folly.
They do, however, require separate and distinct innovation processes and that’s where the discussion becomes important. In order to manage innovation effectively, you need to focus on one set of processes or your organization will become hopelessly muddled.
However, you will still need to gain some competence in other quadrants or you will miss opportunities (as Apple is doing now). Finding the right mix of research, partnering, mining the organization for disruptive ideas and engineering improvements is essential for every organization.