What is Innovation?

Innovation, the Product

Innovation is a word we use to describe something which is both novel and valuable. The more novel and valuable something is, the more likely we are to dub it an innovation.

We accept that a smartphone is more valuable and novel than a ham sandwich. We would never call a ham sandwich innovative, unless of course there was something very unique and tasty—and there you go! Unique = Novel. Tasty = Valuable.

Sometimes these innovative things are tangible products like a smartphone, or an item you might buy at a store, but oftentimes they can be new techniques, services, or even new words or concepts in a language. Each time, we call them innovative, because they have elements of newness or novelty, and elements of usefulness or value.

The same two factors come up again and again when we use the word innovation to describe a product, service, or more generally any outcome.

Those are the dual aspects of innovation.

There's more.

Innovation, the Process

Innovation is also the word we use to describe the process we engage in that results in these novel and valuable outcomes.

To innovate means to improve or invent our way to new and useful outcomes.

There are many formalized innovation processes like Design Thinking, or Creative Problem Solving, or even the scientific method. There are also very informal ones like trial and error.

One important aspect of all innovation processes is learning. Without a willingness and an ability to learn we can never accomplish anything innovative. Discovery drives innovation, and it's a good thing we humans are good at it.

A Brief History of Innovations

Humans have been innovating for thousands of years.

Early innovations included the advent of agriculture, the use of fire, hand tools, the creation and evolution of spoken and written languages, and even early applied sciences like mathematics for accounting.

More recent innovations include space shuttles, the Internet, antibiotics, smartphones, quantum computers, and genetic therapies.

Maybe in the future we'll see teleportation, nano tech, and fusion energy.

Innovation vs Technology vs Creativity

Okay, what distinguishes technology from innovation from creativity?

First, let's take a systems view. Here is what the innovation process looks like from a very high level:

  1. Scientists generate new knowledge.
  2. Engineers turn that new knowledge into new technology.
  3. Entrepreneurs leverage those new technologies to create new products and services.

Scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs work in sequence to create new products and services that flow into the marketplace.

Let's work backwards.

The smartphone in your pocket was designed and built by an entrepreneur and her team or company. The technological components they relied on were developed in engineering labs at universities and R&D departments. The science that those components rely on has its roots in the mathematics of quantum mechanics. Without understanding the behavior of electrons, your smartphone would be a paperweight.

Just for context, quantum mechanics was a product of the scientific community of the 1920's. It took almost a century to get to smartphones.

Note: You don't need a PhD to innovate.

You needn't be formally credentialed as a scientist, engineer, or entrepreneur to do the work of discovery, building technology, or creating new products.

A teacher in a classroom can try new methods of connecting with his students, and upon reviewing the results produced by various methods, discover the best one. This is scientific thinking.

An artist or a musician creates beautiful new experiences for their audience. They need not think of themselves as entrepreneurs, or ever charge a dime for their services. They are innovators if they are regarded as such by their peers and patrons.

Where does creativity come into the mix?

Creativity is an individual's ability to create new things, to think in new ways, to see things differently, to imagine, and to believe that something new is possible. Creativity is personal, social, fragile, and powerful. It is one of our greatest tools as human beings. We used it to adapt and survive over the millenia. We use it today in art, science, business, and beyond. Our children are overflowing with it, but it is in crisis.

The creativity crisis is perhaps the most important challenge underlying many of the issues our society currently faces. You can read more about it here: Newsweek.com/creativity-crisis-74665

Nurture your creativity.

Put it to the test!

Challenge yourself creatively.

Cultivate your creative energies.

Encourage others' when they're being creative.

Creativity is our strongest and most human asset.

Can Large Companies Innovate?


I am tempted to let that stand as a single word answer, because it is so important that organizations innovate. Debating if it's possible seems to be a royal distraction. Although innovation is challenging, the rewards are astronomical, and ignoring innovation as a priority can be fatal in today's disruptive business landscape.

There are two common blockers to innovation at large enterprises that I have experienced in my years building innovation learning programs.

First, is a pervasive risk aversion throughout the organization. Large enterprises, especially those structured as a matrix, are designed in a way that pushes risk out completely. They are designed to optimize productive behaviors, and leave little to no room for creative pursuits.

This is the more common challenge. It is cultural as well as structural, and when the CEO asks for innovation the organization responds like a middle aged yoga novice, My body doesn't bend that way. They, of course, give it their best effort, but it is not a matter of effort, as we all know. Innovation is difficult, and it requires training, practice, and thoughtful integration into the organization's already existing culture and operations.

The second most common blocker is a kind of chaos. There are many enterprises that are very dynamic, they can handle risk quite well, but there's a lack of alignment or structure in their innovation processes. This is common among younger organizations or those doing lots of M&A.

In either case, or other cases, innovation is a worthy and challenging pursuit. If you're just starting out, we like to say the best first thing to do to become a more innovative company is to listen to stories about innovation.

More on that here: Storymining

Why Do You Innovate?

The value of defining something is not in the output, it's in the process of defining. So, for those looking for the quick answer, here it is...




  1. An outcome which is both novel and valuable
  2. A process which produces novel, valuable outcomes

...but for those looking to make real change, to build something new, to thrill and delight their customers, and to set free the creative energies of their emerging talent, there are no easy answers. You must step into the unknown and define innovation for yourself and for your team.

The value of this is two fold (and we've built incredibly successful learning programs specifically around this):

  1. You develop a common language for innovation which allows you to actually engage meaningfully in the innovation process in a strategic and thoughtful way.
  2. You uncover why your people innovate, why they take on the risk of doing something new. And, in understanding these deeply held attitudes you find the bedrock upon which to build a long lasting innovation legacy.

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Photo of Costa Michailidis
Cofounder at Innovation Bound & Working on Big Science Challenges at Knowinnovation