Why is it that innovation is so hard to seriously talk about in most companies?

Everyone agrees that it's important. In fact, when IBM interviewed 1,500 CEOs on what they thought the most important leadership quality was for the next 5 years, the most commonly cited trait was "Creativity", followed by "Integrity" and "Global thinking". They agree that coming up with new ideas for their business was vital for its survival and growth.

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Yet when it comes time to have a serious discussion about how to actually be innovative, too often CEOs, managers and staff find themselves unable to articulate or agree on what they mean. Some people may focus on talking about new technology, others on branding and another group is adamant that the focus should be on breakthrough ideas and "moonshots".

In fact, there are more than 50,000+ searches on Google each month for the two terms What is Innovation? And Innovation definition, so it is clear that there are thousands of other business people out there who also can't agree on what it means.

"Innovation" it seems has become a buzzword that everyone interprets in their own way, similar to other vague business-speak like "quality" and "efficiency".

Being a consultant and author on the subject, I have a definition I use. But I wanted to know how other experts in the industry talk about it with their clients, to see how similar (or different) they turned out to be.

I interviewed 15 of the world's most respected innovation experts and asked them "What is your definition of innovation?". When I began to analyse the results, it quickly became apparent quite how different they all were. You can see all 15 responses in the Slideshare presentation below and more detailed explanations from the experts in the original article:


Initially, it appears like even the experts can't agree on what innovation actually means. But when you analyse what they are saying, you can begin to spot common threads that come up again and again.

After looking through all the responses, there is evidence that there are 9 common aspects which are most important when talking about innovation. Some are cited by more experts than others, and therefore should carry more weight when you are discussing innovation.

The nine most important aspects of an innovation definition (in order of decreasing importance):

  1. Having an idea: Coming up with something fundamentally new and original is vital to differentiate your business' offering.
  2. Executing the idea: Just as important as coming up with an idea is actually making it become a reality. It is no use brainstorming 700+ ideas if none of them ever become more than a sticky note.
  3. Addresses a real challenge: Innovations need to provide a solution to an actual market need (even if customers don't realise they have the need yet). Too many companies come up with solutions to problems that don't exist, and then struggle to understand why nobody is buying them.
  4. Adds value to the company: The company needs to benefit from the innovation for it to be viable and considered a success. Usually this means that the innovation makes a profit and helps the company grow revenue, although it can also add value in other ways, such as being responsible for improving the appeal of other products, the brand, or opening up a new customer market.
  5. Add value to the customer: The customer must also perceive that the innovation has enough value to be worth their while. This trait is often overlooked as companies interpret value from their own perspective (such as focusing on benefits and new features), whereas customers will assess value based on their own desires, experiences and comparisons to all competitors in the market.
  6. Different perspectives and thinking: Several experts highlighted the fact that innovative thinking requires a different approach to what has worked historically. It doesn't always need to be radical, but it should help evolve the way that companies think and approach challenges
  7. Moving forward: Companies which try to keep doing the same thing forever will eventually be outmaneuvered by a competitor who is willing to try something different. Innovations should help the company adapt to the changing marketplace, and ideally become a leader.outmanoeuvred by a competitor who is willing to try something different. Innovations should help the company adapt to the changing marketplace, and ideally become a leader.
  8. Definition not important: Several experts believe that a unified definition is not important, as it may vary between companies.
  9. Addressing new markets: Innovations should help the company access either new customer segments, or customers in new territories

Looking through all of the above aspects, especially the most important ones which most of the experts agreed on, I've now put together what should be the ultimate definition of innovation:

Executing an idea which addresses a specific challenge and achieves value for both the company and customer

So the next time you or your team are asked to come up with an innovative new idea or business proposal, just keep that definition in mind and it should make the process much more effective.