Innovation: What Is It, Anyway?

In the business world, and especially in the technology industry, innovation is what sets a company apart from the competition and helps it to grow and prosper.

But what is innovation? Innovation should not be confused with creativity — although, you can apply creativity while trying to innovate. (Some call creativity the practical side of innovation.) Innovation is not invention, either. You invent when you’re ready to execute on your idea and make your innovation reality, which may involve reconfiguring existing technologies. But again, innovation isn’t innovation unless it creates change and ultimately, value. Innovation is about finding a better way of doing something, and then … introducing it to a whole lot of people who embrace it because they were just aching for that better way of doing something — and maybe didn’t even know it. And many, including those who didn’t know before that they wanted or needed the innovation, now can’t imagine how they got along before without it. So, innovation isn’t just about introducing something new to the world. It’s more about what follows. Innovation’s synonyms underscore this definition: change, transformation, metamorphosis, upheaval. Innovation can be mundane yet revolutionary in terms of improving efficiency for the end user: sliced bread. Or it can be jaw-dropping and wholly disruptive to an existing market: the Apple iPhone. No matter how big or small the actual innovation, its impact is what counts. The impact of true innovation is always significant. And for businesses, innovation is more than just making people say “Wow!” — it’s about making the competition say, “Yikes!”

Like chocolate and peanut butter

Those who innovate know how to connect the dots — particularly, the dots that others miss or even dispute exist. Innovators are change agents. And interestingly, despite their penchant for turning the status quo upside down, they rarely work alone, especially in the business world. Innovators are entrepreneurial in terms of thinking differently and taking risks, but crystallizing their ideas and then making them happen usually requires a team effort. Bringing together diverse perspectives as part of that collaboration is even more important. Think of innovation and collaboration as the two primary components of a Reese’s peanut butter cup: fine apart, but delicious together. Leading tech companies make sure their innovators aren’t trapped in silos. They assign them to research and development: Zappos Labs, for example, is staffed by “technophiles and collaborators” focused on experimenting with “new ways to shop, engage, and connect online.” They give them meaningful tools to collaborate and share ideas — like Intuit does. Some, like Samsung and 3M, set up initiatives to bring together innovators from around the world to identify and grow new technologies and explore creative solutions. And others, like Google, make innovation an inextricable part of their everyday culture. Perhaps it’s trite to say that innovation is the lifeblood of technology. But if Ted Hoff and his colleagues at Intel hadn’t challenged conventional thinking about microprocessors in 1971 and envisioned a better way of doing something, well … our world today likely would be rather different.