Innovation is hard to define. Is it one major breakthrough that can change the world? Is it a novel product that meets the needs of a mass audience? Is it just something cool? We know something is innovative when it changes behavior and impacts our lives in a major way. Your home locks and unlocks automatically or a baby monitor runs in your phone. That's innovation, right?

Maybe. Or, maybe not.

For most of us, we tend to see innovation as one light-bulb moment--a novelty that is new and unusual. The concept dates back to the invention of the light-bulb itself, but more recently to products and services that are so groundbreaking (such as Facebook or Spotify) that we can't imagine life without them. I hate to use this analogy, but for most of us, we know something is innovative when we see it in the same way that we know a photo is pornographic. 

And yet, in a business context, that's not the best definition for innovation. A product or service can be unique, interesting, new, useful, and even novel and never-seen-before but never quite catch on. It might even tank completely. Here's why.

Innovation is often more than one idea that seems new and changes behavior. Instead, it's more like how John Wilson, a vice president of innovation at  Kimberly-Clark, described it to me at a pitch event in Las Vegas recently (I'm here to attend CES 2016, he's here to judge the competition). The idea has to pass a series of filters, each one slowly illuminating the bulb. The filters are related to how the innovation matches with industry trends, the needs of consumers, and even generational differences (Millennials can be a fickle bunch, as you may know).

Here's an example. At the event, 11 different startups pitched their company in hopes of landing an internal project or funding from Kimberly-Clark, the company behind Huggies, Kleenex, and many other brands. It's all about forming a partnership with a large company in hopes of solving a complex, nagging problem.

One firm, called  Ditto, makes an image search product. You could use it to find out how many images exist for your logo and whether people are talking about it. Another company, the massively popular video news site NowThis, creates and distributes brand videos to the tune of 750M clicks. They both seem innovative. They both presented a compelling case for how their product is helpful. In fact, they both have a light-bulb moment where you might say--this is novel and new.

However, to cross the divide into innovation, you would have to apply a few filters. If Ditto can find images only on Twitter (which is public) but not on Facebook (which is closed), it might not help as much. The bulb dims a bit. If NowThis can guarantee a specific number of clicks on a video (which they do by paying for in-line video placements on social media), it becomes much more interesting as a way to promoting brand recognition. The bulb glows brighter.

You can apply this definition to many products that are obviously innovative. The Tesla Model S electric car isn't just a cool idea. It drives on a charge for 300 miles. It's eye-catching. You can upgrade the car by downloading a path over Wi-Fi. It drives autonomously. It passes through a series of filters. The iPhone is another device that fits in the definition. It's not just a smartphone. It has a long-tail of apps, a well-established eco-system, and it's amazingly intuitive. The iPhone landed at a time when the smartphone industry was held captive by poor user interface design. Old useless Windows Mobile devices required that you have an engineering degree.

In fact, what always made Steve Jobs such an innovator is that the products he devised passes through a host of filters until they glowed brighter than anything in recent memory.

The takeaway? For any small company, don't just rely on the bright idea. Don't just hope you will attract customers because your product does something new. Figure out which filters exist and if you can pass through them. You will see a light-bulb glow like the sun.

Published on: Jan 6, 2016
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