What is innovation, really?

Updated: Oct 28


What is innovation? We get asked this a lot, and being clear on what innovation is and isn't is an important first step to creating an innovative organisation.


The following definition is a great place to start.


"The goal of innovation is to amaze customers with something that they could never have imagined. But after having experienced it, can't imagine ever having lived life without it." - Gary Hamel.

When you think about a smartphone, no one would really have been able to imagine having more power than a computer in your hand, that you can do all sorts of things on the go, but now, it's really hard to imagine what it's like to live without one.


Innovation starts with problems


Quite often, people think innovation starts with this fancy, amazing idea. Whereas innovations usually start with a problem, often when you start talking about problems, you can see people's eyes glazing over because it's not exciting to delve into a problem. However, when you understand how important problems are to innovation, they suddenly start to transform and become exciting because that's what gives you the challenge that leads to innovation.


So, falling in love with a problem is what leads you to great solutions.


If we think about some of the most well known innovations they all started with a problem. Uber started with the issue of people waiting for a taxi that didn't arrive and the electric car and solar power came from issues around fossil fuels. Non-invasive robotic and laser surgeries were innovations born from the problems with patient recovery.


More than just digital solutions


The other thing is digital solutions. I wrote an article when we were about six months into COVID. Everyone said, “Get your services online.” I wanted to make a point that just putting your services online wasn't innovative in itself. If you simply lifted and shifted things, and instead of someone talking to your clients, they now just fill out a form, that's not really innovative.

It's about what the solution does for people. The organisations that were innovative in that area when shifting their services online were the ones that were able to use data that they already had, or improved the experience online, making it faster, easier, friendlier, and more human. That's what makes digital transformation innovative.


Client-centred innovations


Sometimes when leaders are thinking about improvements, they're often thinking about improvements from their own perspective. That's how you end up with everybody posting the same form online. They're thinking to themselves, "Well, it'll save us time." All they've done is shift the burden of effort from within their business to their clients and they haven't considered, how we can reduce this effort? How can we completely eliminate this effort? Is it truly required? What can we do to improve the situation? Not just for our company, but for the entire experience for both our organisation and our client?


Often this is where we see cost-cutting and innovation getting mixed up. People think it's an innovation because they're employing a more modern delivery mechanism, but in reality, they've gone backwards in terms of the actual client experience. So, from the client's point of view, that isn't really innovative.


If you take the time from the start to ensure that you understand their needs and incorporate them into any adjustments you make, you'll be able to come up with these innovations that benefit both the organisation and your clients.


In summary, innovation doesn't need to be new or sexy, and it can be pragmatic and practical for people. It is about going back to that Gary Hamel quote;

"its goal is to amaze clients with something that they could never have imagined. But after having experienced it, I can't imagine ever having lived without it."


That can look like using quite modern technology or old technology. Quite simply it's about making things better.


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