Innovation: We'll know it when we see it
Those of you who can remember old U.S. Supreme Court rulings will recognize the title. A Supreme Court justice, on ruling about pornography and when and where it could be published, recognized that in order to rule on its commercial availability, the court would have to define what pornography was. The justice was rumored to have said that he couldn't define it, but he knew it when he saw it. Unfortunately many corporations use the same approach to innovation. They expect great results, but don't know how to define what they want. In the absence of a destination, any road you take will get you where you are going.
The real truth about innovation and its definitions and outcomes is that we recognize innovation when the market shifts and provides outsized rewards to companies that address important, unmet customer needs. Until that time good ideas often seem unusual or risky, not worth pursuing. Then, when a competitor capitalizes and creates a great new product, we slap our foreheads and wonder why we didn't recognize the need and fill it. Most good innovators have a very well defined problem to solve and understand the underlying customer needs and expectations. Further they have in mind potential solutions, but they allow those solutions to be shaped by customer needs. They have a good, but flexible, definition of the size and scope of the innovation, as well as the potential outcome.
What we should be doing instead is creating a definitive scope for innovation using shared definitions and language. And, we should be innovating across a portfolio that includes incremental (small changes to existing products) and disruptive (completely new to the world products), as well as thinking about new ideas as products, channels, services, business models and other potential outcomes. All this does is establish the width and breadth of the "playing field", and then each innovation activity must determine for itself what the appropriate risk, investment and potential outcome should be.
If, on the other hand, you continue to use a "we'll know it when we see it" mentality, you'll find that all of your innovations look very similar to your existing products, because people "know" what they do and produce each day, and will revert to those definitions and constructs in the absence of any new expanded scope. If you ever wonder why so many innovations "fail" or simply mimic existing products and services, this is the reason. In the absence of new scope and clear definitions, it's much easier to simply repeat what's tried and true, rather than create something interesting and new.
Recently I was contacted by a new client who wanted us to teach their teams how to innovate more effectively. We responded with a proposal but asked about their innovation definitions, mostly to understand existing expectations. What, we asked, where the company's definitions or expectations about innovation? Their answer: we hope you'll tell us. Think about that for a minute. Would you ask an external company to deliver a fully developed strategy for your business? Would you delegate decision making about entering a new geography or product line to an external firm? If not, why would you ask an external agency, even an expert, to dictate what your innovation scope and definitions should be? Because you are working on the "we'll know it when we see it" model, and should be working on the premise: we'll see it when we know it instead.