Demystifying the Mysteries of Innovation

Stephen DeAngelis

December 26, 2014

Innovation is one of those terms that you hear frequently but realize doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. “When asked to define the legal definition for obscenity,” writes Jeff DeGraff (@JeffDeGraff), an innovation professor at the Ross School of Business and founder of Innovatrium Institute of Innovation, “Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously quipped ‘I know it when I see it.’ For most of us the same applies to a working definition for innovation. We have a general sense of what it is but we know that under cross examination of the evidence it probably wouldn’t hold up.” [“What Is Innovation?Business 2 Community (B2C), 7 October 2014] If someone like DeGraff, who has spent over a quarter of a century teaching students and corporations how to innovate, still has difficulty defining the term, you can understand why many other people find the entire subject of innovation a bit mysterious if not magical. DeGraff notes that one of the challenges involved in trying to define innovation is that what it means to innovate is different from industry to industry. “The challenge of defining innovation,” he asserts, “is finding a common denominator: attributes, functions, outcomes or other discernible differentiating characteristics.”

 

DeGraff rhetorically asks, “Why does a common definition of innovation matter?” His answer is: “Because if you don’t share a common description of what innovation is and how it is created you have little chance of achieving it with the other members of your organization.” That statement implies that your definition of innovation can be organizationally specific (i.e., it may not apply to innovation in other organizations). Nevertheless, as a starting point, he offers “a functional definition for innovation that is easily recognizable by anyone in any type organization.” The definition was first put forward by the late Marshall McLuhan, McLuhan suggested that an innovation:

  • Enhances something: Think about how Google was a late entrant into the search biz but lapped the field with its simple approach
  • Eliminates something: Think about how Charles Schwab eliminated the need for stock brokers by connecting the back office of the trading house directly to the customer
  • Returns Us to Something in Our Past: Think about how the desire to have home cooked family meals has led to the proliferation of underground dining and slow food restaurants
  • Over Time Reverses into Its Opposite: Think about how e-mail was going to set us all free but instead enslaved us with its ubiquitous and overwhelming demands

DeGraff writes, “It is assumed that the more potent the innovation the more it embodies the four attributes and vice versa.” Those four attributes really aren’t all that straight forward. Personally, I prefer to think of an innovation as something that solves the innovation formula. The innovation formula is: innovation = new x valuable x realized. Another way of defining innovation is what I call the “Four I” framework: “Innovation Involves Idea Implementation.” In other words, the difference between creativity (i.e., idea generation) and innovation is the difference between dreams and reality. Innovators make things happen. McLuhan’s four attributes of innovation also make this clear. As DeGraff puts it, McLuhan “focused on [an innovation’s] effects and not its causes.” Erika Napoletano notes that the consulting firm ?What If! Innovation Partners, offers a definition of innovation that also involves a formula and has Four I’s. [“Demystifying Innovation: A Guide to Creative Thinking and Creating,” American Express Open Forum, 7 November 2014] That definition is:

 

IDENTIFY x INSIGHT x IDEAS x IMPACT = INNOVATION

 

By now it should be clear that something is not an innovation if it lies fallow as an idea. An innovation must affect or have an impact on something. It should also be clear that every innovation begins with an idea. It doesn’t take a genius to come up with a new idea. People get ideas all the time. Innovators, however, act on their ideas. Over half a century ago, the late Isaac Asimov, a true genius and renaissance man, wrote an essay entitled “On Creativity” that went unpublished until this year. Asimov began his essay by asking, “How do people get new ideas?” [“Isaac Asimov Asks, ‘How Do People Get New Ideas?’,” Introduction by Arthur Obermayer, MIT Technology Review, 20 October 2014] Asimov wrote:

“Presumably, the process of creativity, whatever it is, is essentially the same in all its branches and varieties, so that the evolution of a new art form, a new gadget, a new scientific principle, all involve common factors. … One way of investigating the problem is to consider the great ideas of the past and see just how they were generated. Unfortunately, the method of generation is never clear even to the ‘generators’ themselves.”

Although that may sound like Asimov decided that trying figure how people get new ideas was an impossible task, he had decided no such thing. It wasn’t in his nature to quit. He asked a second question: “What if the same earth-shaking idea occurred to two men, simultaneously and independently?” He realized that this had happened with relationship to the theory of evolution by natural selection. Both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace came up with the theory independently and around the same time. After studying their lives and the development of their ideas, Asimov concluded, “What is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.” He continues:

“That is the crucial point that is the rare characteristic that must be found. Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, ‘How stupid of me not to have thought of this.’ But why didn’t he think of it? The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a ‘new idea,’ but as a mere ‘corollary of an old idea.’ It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on. A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others. Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)”

How many times have you seen a new invention or product and smacked yourself on the forehead and exclaimed, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Asimov, it appears, was on to something. He’s not the only pundit who has realized that the best innovations often arise when connections are made. That’s the very theme behind what Frans Johansson calls “The Medici Effect.” Johansson writes about the value of creating a space in which people from diverse fields of expertise can get together to exchange ideas (i.e., make connections). The Medici’s, of course, were a wealthy and powerful Italian family who played an important role in the Renaissance. The family’s wealth permitted it to support artists, philosophers, theologians, and scientists, whose combined intellect helped burst the historical pall known as the Dark Ages.

 

As Individuals, we need to create our own Medici Effect by reading widely and exposing ourselves to new experiences and disciplines. Only then will we be able to make non-obvious connections. Companies need to do the same thing by bringing together groups of diverse individuals from a multitude of disciplines to address specific problems. The solutions that such groups develop are much more likely to be innovative than solutions derived from a group whose members are drawn from the same discipline. Even when groups are formed, individual members of the group need to be given time alone to think about what they have heard and learned. Asimov stated:

“My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. … The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display. … It seems to me then that the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts.”

The mind that makes the connection between two concepts and comes up with a great idea may not belong to the person who is best suited to move that idea forward. Pride of ownership is a great inhibitor to innovation. An idea will never become an innovation if it is not acted upon. That single truth must remain utmost in the mind of any corporate executive who wants his or her company to embrace a culture of innovation.