Blog post

Creating a Useful Definition of Innovation

By Jackie Fenn | July 23, 2021 | 1 Comment

CIO Leadership of Innovation, Disruptive Trends and Emerging PracticesEnterprise Architecture and Technology Innovation LeadersTechnology Innovation

There are as many definitions of innovation as there are dictionaries, creativity blogs and innovation consultants. I’ve found it helpful in working with clients at the beginning of their innovation journey to keep a broad and inclusive definition of innovation and frame the discussion around what types of innovation they want to achieve. In other words, rather than trying to define what “is” and “isn’t” innovation, it’s better to acknowledge that innovation comes in many shapes and sizes and identify the most relevant shape and size for your organization.

The worst thing you can do if you’re trying to encourage people to come up with ideas is to tell them “that idea isn’t innovative enough” or “that’s not innovation, it’s just a new function”. It’s more encouraging to hear “that idea’s not a good match for this particular program, but try this other route to make it happen.” By keeping a broad definition but acknowledging multiple types of innovation and paths to success, you can design a program (or set of programs) that encourages participation and addresses all your innovation goals.

A definition of innovation

The inclusive definition we’ve been using at Gartner for many years, which seems to be holding up over time, is:

Innovation is the execution of new ideas that create value.

Even through it’s broad, this definition acknowledges the need for a degree of novelty (“new ideas”), the importance of implementing the new ideas, not just exploring them (“execution”) and the emphasis on outcomes (“create value”). Depending on the context, the value created may be business value, mission value (for government or not-for-profits), or broader societal or aesthetic value.

The challenge of a broad definition is that within these parameters innovation can still mean different things to different people. All too often we witness mismatched interpretations within the same organization, where one person believes innovation is “anything we’re not doing yet” and another thinks it’s “something nobody in the world has done yet”. Neither interpretation is right or wrong, but unless stakeholders share common expectations, nobody is going to be happy with the outcomes.

Dimensions of innovation

So in addition to a definition, we’ve found it helpful to think about the dimensions of innovation that lead to different types of innovation goals, initiatives and activities. For example the two interpretations above are at opposite ends of the novelty dimension. Five of the most common and useful dimensions are:

  • Novelty – from “something we haven’t done”, to “something nobody in the world has done”.
  • Market Impact – from product/service enhancements and customer experience, through new products and services, to new business models.
  • Timing – from short time to value (weeks or months) to long time to value (years or even decades).
  • Scale – from small and incremental to large, radical or disruptive.
  • Focus – the set of targets for innovation, including processes/operations vs products/services (which then links to the Market Impact dimension). Note that this dimension is not so much a scale, but rather a set of categories.

Use dimensions to define your innovation scope and portfolio

To make sure that all parties are on board with the same expectations, use the dimensions as follows:

  1. Decide which portions of each dimension are of interest to your organization. In particular, identify how far to the right of each dimension (for example highly novel or long time to value) your organization is prepared to go in terms of increasing ambition and associated risk.
  2. Even if your ambition doesn’t stretch to the far right end of each dimension, most organizations find that they want to operate in multiple segments along the dimensions, for example some short term and some medium term value, or some incremental and some larger scale. Express this as a portfolio, with percentages assigned to the different segments on each dimension (eg 80% of efforts targeting incremental innovation, and 20% larger scale).
  3. Determine which parts of the portfolio (i.e., which segments) need the most attention. If small-scale quality or process improvements are already part of the fabric of the organizational culture, then an innovation initiative might focus on larger scale innovation that needs dedicated attention and resources.
  4. If you have multiple innovation teams or initiatives, be clear which parts of the portfolio each team is responsible for, and avoid unnecessary overlap. For example, a lab will typically focus on longer term, disruptive or market-leading innovation, while an innovation challenge or hackathon might target incremental customer experience improvements.
  5. At the innovation team level, consider a couple of additional dimensions. Breadth ranges from local innovation in a team’s home function (for example IT or marketing), to responsibility for innovating across the whole company. Participation runs from enabling, supporting and mentoring distributed innovation, to being the actual “doers” of innovation discovery and experimentation.

These dimensions also make a great source for 2-axis representations of an innovation portfolio such as McKinsey’s three horizons framework or Gartner’s Priority Matrix, but that’s a topic for another day.

One size doesn’t fit all for innovation, so when you find yourself pulled into those inevitable discussions around definitions, make sure you also recognize the key dimensions that form a well-rounded set of innovation goals and targets.

Comments are closed

1 Comment

  • “One size doesn’t fit all for innovation, so when you find yourself pulled into those inevitable discussions around definitions, make sure you also recognize the key dimensions that form a well-rounded set of innovation goals and targets.”

    Very well said. And I also agree when you said that innovation has many different meanings and that,

    “it’s better to acknowledge that innovation comes in many shapes and sizes and identify the most relevant shape and size for your organization.”

    That was on point. Thank you very much for this post. I find it really enlightening.

    Clickfunnels Certified