Geoffrey Moore’s blogging dialogue with Tom Forenski highlighted to me my own vagueness over what, exactly, is meant by innovation and innovative. Tom Forenski said, "I think innovation *always* has to have the quality of disruption" in response to 10 myths about innovation posted by Moore on the Sandhill website.
Moore (correctly, in my opinion) argues that there are varying levels of innovation, many of which are not disruptive. Moore's arguement is made clear by the very fact that the term "disruptive innovation" was the focus of Clayton Christensens book The Innovator’s Dilemma: if all innovation were disruptive, then disruptive innovation would be redundant. I doubt that Christensen would have wasted his time detailing and defining a redundant concept, anymore than I expect to see a leading chef publish a book detailing how we should focus our culinary resources towards “edible food.”
Still, where do you draw the line on what is and isn’t innovative? I believe we can draw some guidance from the decades of thought that has gone into determining what is patentable. One of the criteria for whether an invention is patentable is whether it is novel or nonobvious. By this is meant whether someone knowledgeable in the field of the invention would consider this to be an obvious creation or not. A patent attorney at one of my previous companies liked to demonstrat this concept by pulling a pen out of his pocket and saying, “This type of pen may have never been produced in the color red, but that does not mean that a red version of this pen is novel or nonobvious and can therefore be patented. To anyone who knows the field of pens, the creation of a red version of what I am holding is an obvious creation.”
This criterion, perhaps, could be part of the definition of innovation. To use the example above, a red pen might be a new product, but it would not be innovative, unless there was something unique about that color which causes it to succeed in the marketplace far beyond the expectations of one who knows pens. Then, the development of a red pen is only innovative in the selling and marketing of it.
As detailed by Moore, innovation can take many forms, and can include incremental improvements that cause no disruption whatsoever. But, the development of a new product, or the sales of a new product, should not be described as innovative unless there is something special about the product or the result in the marketplace that is not obvious to someone expert in the field of that product.
The February issue of the Harvard Business Review has an article on Management Innovation, and in that article the author unintentionally provides his own description of what makes something innovative. I have slightly modified one of his statements on management innovation to speak to innovation in general:
innovation can be defined as a marked departure from traditional principles, processes, and practices or a departure from customary forms that that significantly alters functionality.
The author later states that (management) innovation stems from “unorthodox thinking” and “wisdom from the fringe”. This surely separates innovations from simply good ideas. Introducing a de-featured, lower cost version of a product may be a very good idea, but I would not classify this as an innovation.
Gordom Graham makes valid points on distinctions between different types of innovation over at Broken Bulbs. I invite readers to comment on, and bloggers to post and trackback their own thoughts on, what is meant by innovative and innovation.