Not Everything New is Innovative
Some time ago I received a CV from an aspiring product manager. In it he listed one of his qualities as “innovative,” which I liked. I called the guy in for an interview and we spent a good ten minutes of our meeting sparring over the term (this was in Israel, where the business culture really does allow candidates really to argue with interviewers, but that’s a topic for a different post). In retrospect I can see that we were talking past each other. When he said “innovative” he meant “inventive” or “creative,” but innovation has a specific meaning in a business sense.
Innovation is creating something new, of value.
The above definition of innovation will not sit well with everyone, and if you have a different take on it I would love to hear your opinion. Innovation, more specifically technological innovation, is completely dependent on it being a viable way to generate profits. The whole point of innovation is that it:
Will allow your company to create a legal monopoly over some product or service;
Is something that is needed in the market; and
That your company can somehow leverage that monopoly to make money.
Your kid’s beautiful art project might be creative. If it cannot be sold it isn’t innovative in any real business sense. Or take that nifty invention that your brother-in-law came up with in the garage and he'd like you'd to join as a partner. Is it new? Let’s assume that it is. Is it creative? Again, let’s assume that it is. Does it create value that you two can capture? If it doesn’t, congratulate your brother-in-law on being inventive and creative and go look for business opportunities somewhere else.
What Picasso can teach us about innovation
Let's stick with art and discuss van Gogh and Picasso. Viewed through the lens of the management of innovation, one was former was creative while the latter was both creative and innovative. Vincent died penniless while Pablo made out quite well.
Was one a “better” painter than the other? I would argue that the question itself is a distraction. What makes them different for our purposes was that not only could Picasso create wonderful art, he was also successful in innovating a new business model around his art. Picasso created art and then took charge of its replication (lithographs, for example), distribution, promotion and so on. He was innovative in a way van Gogh wasn’t. "But van Gogh's paintings are worth millions," you'll say, and you'd be right. They are worth millions... now, decades after the poor man could have used the money. In discussing innovation strategy I strongly feel that we should stick to creativity that can make you money.
This isn’t a post about jargon. In the management of technological innovation concepts matter, clarity matters. Clarity about what innovation means is the first step to a successful innovation strategy.