No one really seems to know. Few can agree on a comprehensive definition of “innovation” because it means different things in different contexts. But most definitions of “innovation” align on three points. For an idea to be innovative (1) the idea must be new, (2) the idea must create value, and (3) the idea must be executed.1
- The idea has to be new. But “new” can come in different forms. It can be a completely new idea, or a new use for an old idea, or some incremental improvement of an existing idea.2
- The idea must create some kind of value. Value is basically anything that has a positive impact.3 Increased revenue, decreased cost, increased market share, or time savings to name a few.4
- The idea has to be executed. Innovation is more than just a nifty new idea. If there is no execution, then the idea has no practical effect, and the idea cannot create value.5
How Does Innovation Help Us?
Innovation is the process that moves humans beyond the conventional, the traditional, and the assumed.6 People get stuck. They judge new situations with old knowledge, regardless of how well the fit is between the old and the new.7 The problem is that life will throw us new scenarios but our brains seem to consistently and feebly dig around in the grab bag of previous experience.8 A person who is experienced with the hammer, thinks every problem can be solved by the hammer, even if a screwdriver was the better tool.
Innovation gives that person the screwdriver.
Businesses particularly covet innovative thinking. That’s because, when it comes to business, innovation is the key to survival.9 Innovation helps save time, money, and is what’s needed to gain and maintain a competitive advantage.10
How Does Innovation Occur?
Innovative ideas can strike us out of the blue. But more commonly, they can also be created through a honing process called design thinking. Design thinking offers a structured framework for understanding and pursuing innovation.11 To design think, one must use observation to discover the unmet needs of situation, frame the problem, and generate and refine creative ideas until a solution is ready to implement.12
Design thinking facilitates innovation because it narrows the conversation about what the problem truly is and it reduces the risks that come with taking a chance on something new.13
There are the four steps in the design thinking process: (1) define the problem, (2) create and consider many options, (3) refine the selected ideas, and (4) pick the winner and execute.14
- Define the problem. This is the most important step. It requires the design thinkers to question and cross-examine the problem that has been presented. What exactly is the problem? What makes it a problem in the first place? The key to this step is to define the problem in a non-judgmental way. It’s not “design a chair,” it’s “create a way to suspend a person.”15
- Create and consider many options. No matter how obvious the solution may seem, design thinkers create as many solutions as they can and give equal and neutral consideration to each.16
- Refine the selected ideas. New ideas must not be rejected immediately. Even great ideas are fragile in their infancy and need a chance to be accepted and grow. Design thinkers take the time to refine and make each idea as best as it can be.17
- Pick the winner and execute. Pick the strongest ideas and invest in them, create prototypes and test them in earnest. Design thinkers are ceaselessly critical of their ideas’ successes and failures.18
What Holds Innovation Back?
Innovation is great. It increases efficiency, it helps economies grow, and it graces society with better products and services.19
But what holds innovation back? Unfortunately, there are many constraints, none of which address the merits of the new versus the old idea.20
Specifically, consider the following constraints:
There is a reason all airplanes have wings. The contact point between the plane and the air has certain unavoidable properties, which constrain innovation.21 Innovation involves harnessing existing natural processes and directing them to create something new.22 The laws of nature thus bind innovative capabilities.
Business practices that encourage cutthroat competition and leave little time or money to experiment kill innovation.23 Innovation flourishes where intellectual openness is emphasized and employees feel that they are financially and emotionally supported.24
The Market Place
Industries where product markets are already established and the key players have long been entrenched are inhospitable to new innovative ventures.25 This hostile environment discourages innovation and makes it seem too risky.26 The prospect of such an uphill battle chills innovation at the foot of the mountain.
Innovation and human advancement are limited by many things, often far out of our control. Fortunately, however, certain analytical techniques like design thinking can help isolate issues and buck the mental processes that insulate the status quo. With design thinking, innovation becomes something you can make happen, rather than wait for.
Citations to more resources:
Dam, Rikke, and Teo Siang. “What Is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular?” The Interaction Design Foundation.
Australian Government, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science. “Research and Innovation.” Innovation and Science, 7 June 2017.
Research and Innovation; “Innovation – Benefits and Risks | tutor2u Business.” tutor2u.
“Design Thinking as a Strategy for Innovation.” Creativity at Work.
Staff, Fast Company. “Design Thinking… What Is That?” Fast Company, Fast Company, 5 Apr. 2015.
Clow, MacDonald. “The Natural Limits of Technological Innovation.” Technology in Society, Pergamon, 8 Sept. 1998.