Navigating the Innovation Gap: Defining Innovation

April 12, 2017 Sara Audisho

What is innovation anyway?

The best place to start piecing this puzzle together is probably by understanding what ‘innovation’ actually is. To do that, we have to collectively agree on what innovation should look like – what it’s supposed to achieve.

Seems kind of easy right? Not so much.

The criteria for what makes something innovative has become murky, to say the least. Everything flashy or trendy has been labelled ‘innovative’. It’s as if it’s become an adjective used to romanticize anything remotely original or worthy of an eyebrow raise.

The goal here is to meet back at square one, the drawing board, and specify the definition of real innovation.

What endeavours do you think are innovative? Are projects that cure disease ‘truly’ innovative? Are effective measures to erode socioeconomic barriers innovative? Do we only care about getting to Mars?... Come on, if inhabiting a new planet isn’t innovative, then what is?!

We’re definitely biting off more than we can chew here. We’re not even going to attempt to tell the world what to do, or what humanity’s goals for tomorrow should be. This brief thought exercise is meant to convey the gravity of what innovation could mean.

The consequence of closing the gap will be a very different reality.

Sure that sounds dramatic, but think about the last time real innovation occurred – the invention of the World Wide Web – and how that changed the way we live. That’s the kind of innovation leaders are seeking. The absolutely revolutionary.

But that’s not what leaders are reaping from their constituents and their employees. 

Over 80 percent of business leaders believe innovation is important for their future success, but less than 30 percent of them are satisfied with their current level of innovation. Hence, the innovation gap.

Looking at the problem within this scope, it appears straightforward: we need to push employees to reach the level of innovation that their management desires. Where the can of worms lies is in trying to find out why employees cannot reach this threshold. The picture begins to widen, and then widens some more, and then widens to the point at which you find yourself sitting back in your chair having your 27th existential crisis this week.

Ok, big picture, we get it. Let’s bring it back to the OP. What is innovation? Because if we can settle on some form of a definition, then we can understand why there might be a disconnect between leaders and employees, and have a clear ideal citizens can work toward.   

We mentioned the lack of clear criteria for what makes a project innovative, and we’re not the only ones who have noticed. Soapbox Innovations takes a jab at it and identifies three joint conditions necessary for innovation to occur within a company:

  • The idea must be new

  • It must create value

  • It must actually be executed

All three conditions must be present to qualify something as innovative, and that makes a lot of sense. Companies execute ideas they derive value from all the time – actions that cut costs, increase profit margins, increase market share, and so forth. These ideas aren’t new and original though; they’re just integral to keeping a business afloat.

Henry Chesbrough, dubbed ‘Godfather of Open Innovation’, says this is because companies are enslaved to the out-dated mantra of “closed” innovation – the belief that good ideas can only be found internally, that “if you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” Chesbrough first argued that open innovation – using outside knowledge when it’s most logical to do so, so that you can put your people to work at what they do best – has been the difference between industry followers and leaders. The most forward-thinking companies leave the right knowledge to the right people.

That also just so happens to be something we’ve discovered at The Tite Group – that it’s ok to seek partnerships outside of our family to do the job the way it’s meant to be done. What has happened to the marketing industry is a perfect example. Its biggest players have fallen into a wholesale arms race with one another, trying to offer a one-stop-shop style of service. They’ve become big machines with a lot of little cogs, all churning out work in the same ecosystem. Despite the size and complexity of your ecosystem, exposure to other ecosystems promises diversity. Who doesn’t want to know if there’s a better way of doing things? If that means looking beyond your own backyard, then it’s time to do so. It's time to collaborate.

It’s this kind of synthesis of ideas and knowledge, and streamlining of talents, that is said to be one of the greatest detriments to our creative ability, and this problem goes beyond the world of marketing. It’s a problem that’s being explored across all disciplines, because as we’ll see in later segments, it affects our ability to learn and think.

What’s the takeaway for corporate innovation?

What does real innovation look like?

Maybe Chesbrough is right. Maybe open innovation is a great start. Open innovation requires collaboration, and collaboration means knowing where you add value and where you don’t.  

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