Priest in the Church of England. Father, husband, son. "Small acts of Good change the world."

What the hell is Innovation?

From AussieGold on Flickr

From AussieGold on Flickr

I don’t even know why I’ve given it a capital. Innovation (had to there), is meaningless. It has been since marketeers started using it to describe anything that may be vaguely new or interesting, or ‘thinking’ that was vaguely new or interesting, or perhaps, just interesting. It could be thinking about the future, or thinking about the future in a new way. Or EVEN thinking about our thinking, on the thinking for the future.

Seriously. WTF? What is Innovation, that Research & Development isn’t?

I’m genuinely interested in if anyone else shares my growing hate of the word. Please tell me, what’s the difference? Why can’t we be Research & Development?

Answers on a post-card please.


  1. Tom Coates

    I think it’s fair to say that a company can be innovative without having an R&D arm, and I think it’s fair to say that you can distinguish between two companies or products by some generalised sense of how innovative they are, although of course it’s really hard to quantify.

    So there’s something hard and useful underneath all the guff, I think, but Sweet Jesus there isn’t half a great big fuckton of guff and balls and emptiness and vacuity concealing it.

    I don’t hate innovation as much as I hate compelling, is basically what I’m saying. Compelling is creepy and stupid. Innovation is a good word that’s got trapped inside the golden cage of professional arseholes.

  2. Briantist

    Wasn’t it Janet Street Porter who used to go around insisting everything had to be “innivitiv”? I blame her!

  3. Michael Sparks

    Stick with what the word actually means and you won’t go far wrong. ie the OED definition:

    1. a. The action of innovating; the introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms.

    For that to make sense you need the verb to innovate:
    1. trans. To change (a thing) into something new; to alter; to renew. Obs. (rare after 1750.)
    2. To bring in (something new) the first time; to introduce as new. Obs. exc. in Comm.
    3. intr. To bring in or introduce novelties; to make changes in something established; to introduce innovations. Sometimes const. on or upon (also with indirect passive). spec. in Comm.

    3 is tautological and not helpful, but if you look at these, they boil down to “introducing something into a situation where it is considered new for that situation”.

    ie specifically the introduction of a new method/etc into a situation that did not previously have that thing. eg introducing wikis into an organisation that didn’t use them is innovation.

    As a result, you can then have a clear sequence of research, development and innovation, in a business context:
    * research : the creation of something genuinely new – an advancement of knowledge/technology.
    * development : the process of taking that pure/applied research and making it useable/reusable
    * innovation : the introduction of developments into the business

    It’s worth noting that you can skip the development stage if research is handed off to developmental partners, and that innovation can draw on both internal and external research/developments. (indeed, it should, since good research does the same)

    Incidentally, this does mean that a marketer is talking complete sphericals if they say “This is a true innovation”, because it isn’t one unless it gets introduced into a business in terms of actual use/deployment. They can say it’s something new, which may or may not be true. They can say it’s an advancement of state of the art/the latest development, which may or may not be true. But unless they’ve deployed it into a specific environment where it is actually new, then it’s not innovation, it’s just a toy and maybe shiny.

    I suppose this boils down to “have I found this new thing useful”.

  4. Phil

    Innovation is the antithesis of boredom. I get bored, therefore I innovate. I also sleep when I get bored. From this we can conclude that innovation == sleeping.

    I have just discovered a new excuse for falling asleep in meetings and have innovated with respect to my duties.

    Man that was a hard day’s work – need a sleep.

  5. Jonathan Tweed

    I hate it too.

    I hate it when companies say they’re going to be more innovative. The innovation is already there, it just needs to be allowed to surface.

    Relaxing policies, changing culture and removing barriers to experimentation are what’s needed, not telling everyone to be more innovative.

  6. Frank Wales

    I have a remarkable proof of something which this comment box is too small to contain.

    But my blog
    is bigger.

  7. mattcashmore

    Phil – genius – total genius. I am going to present this to the Innovation Board ASAP. It’s a break-through.

    Jonathan – totally spot on – the single biggest thing the BBC did to be more innovative? Stopped sending cease and desist letters and started sending emails saying – wanna work with us?