What is innovation?

I recently attended an innovation workshop, whose aim was to help London based Social Enterprises better understand and utilise innovation techniques for a more efficient business.

The morning was a good mix of both, theory: discussing the benefits of and barriers to innovation; and practice: learning and applying in small group challenges, some practical techniques. From the discussions had during breaks and practical sections of the morning, my fellow attendees found the session useful and inspiring, as did I. But the part of the morning that I found really fascinating was how the group defined ‘innovation’ – the very first task we were given on arrival.

Here is a selection of some of the definitions they gave: “Something that’s better then what came before”, “Turning new ideas into action”, ‘Fresh thinking”, “Seeing gaps and filling them”, “Thinking outside the box”, “Finding new solutions to problems”, “Engaging the right side of the brain”, and “Taking ideas to the market place”.

Although their suggestions fit with those given by the dictionaries: a new method, idea, product, etc; or ‘something new or different introduced’, to me they fell a little flat. I imagine an innovation to be more aspirational, more surprising, and more fantastic. I decided to look for another definition, and found one that hit closer to the mark. Sir Ken Robinson in his book ‘Out of our minds’ describes innovation as the ‘application of ideas’ and ideas as ‘the application of imagination’ – a very special ability that only humans have, to see through the eyes of another, look to the future and the past, and envisage something never in reality seen.

But I was still thinking bigger, thinking of the implementation of game-changing ideas. In a word I was thinking ‘radical’. Gina Colarelli O’Connor, author of ‘Radical innovation’ defines a radical innovation as one that creates wholly new markets and/or destroys existing ones, based on technological or logistical breakthroughs. This stems from Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of ‘creative destruction’ described in Wired magazine, March 2002 by Frank Rose as spurts of innovation destroying established enterprises and yielding new ones’.

There are many types of innovation: disruptive, incremental, radical, continuous and so on, all thought to be positive. However, when it comes to solving the environmental and social challenges of today, many believe that the time for incremental innovation, or just plain old innovation are past. Today we need radical innovation. It could be argued that this be left to the scientists, the engineers, the R&D teams, and the company leaders. But shouldn’t we all be trying to think radically? A game-changing idea could come from any member of the team, if they are given the chance to imagine and the voice to be heard.


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