The Age of Spurious Innovation

We live in an age where the word innovation is used as often as hello or goodbye. It does not matter where you are or what you do. Everyone is talking about innovation. Everything is innovative. But nothing ever changes.

Innovation became a buzzword you either love or hate. Here is the problem: politicians and business leaders constantly talk about innovation but nobody seems to agree what it actually is or what it means.

You might experience it when you scroll through your Twitter or LinkedIn feed, listen to your boss or coworkers, attend business conferences or exhibitions: every new product – no matter how redundant – is called innovative. As soon you do anything slightly different, your company is innovating. Basically, any change is an innovation. Congratulations!

What Exactly is Innovation?

Innovation, innovation, innovation. Where does it start and where does it end? What exactly is innovation? And why is the usage of the word innovation more inflated than the Venezuelan bolĂ­var? 

In order to achieve real innovation, it is pretty important for all executives and thought leaders to first understand what innovation actually is. What makes a new product innovative? What makes a new service innovative? What makes a company innovative?

Guy Kawasaki – who worked for Apple as a Chief Evangelist in the 80s and 90s – brilliantly described product innovation by accident on CNBC make it:

I want something that tugs at my heartstrings. Something that will make me wait like a fool outside an Apple store the night before it ships.

Guy Kawasaki

Innovation is not merely a product which is a little bit better than before. It is not adding a little bit of value to an already existing product or service. Also does outside of the box thinking make anything innovative by definition.

The most relevant definition you’ll find on Google is the “ultimate definition of innovation” by Nick Skillicorn:

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

Nick Skillicorn

However, is innovation merely the definition of adding value to something? No, it is not. Let’s define what it actually means to innovate.

From Zero to One

Peter Thiel is arguably one of the brightest but also most controversial thought leaders from the Silicon Valley. He argues that merely improving an existing product or an existing way of doing things is going from one to n. 

When Apple is improving its iPhone by building a faster processor it is an improvement from one to n. However, when Apple first introduced the iPod, iPhone, or iPad, it created new categories of products. Something that never existed before. Therefore, Apple went from zero to one.

Going from zero to one is where real innovation takes place. It is about inventing and creating something new, from scratch, from zero.

Let’s keep “from zero to one” as a requisite for innovation. Now, creating something from zero to one does not make everything an innovation. If you invent something which is of no value to anyone you did went from zero to one. But did you innovate? Here is where we can expand on Nick Skillicorns definition of innovation and combine it with Peter Thiel’s Zero to One thinking:

Innovation is the successful execution of an idea which goes from zero to one by creating something new, solves a specific challenge or fulfills an unwitting need by achieving value for the society.

How can we get there

We need to step back and rethink our inflated use of the word innovation. Small changes to existing products are not innovations per se. Praising everything as innovative – when it fact it is not – is preventing real innovation from happening.

Business leaders and politicians must understand the principle of going from zero to one. The idea of inventing and creating something from scratch. By accepting and propagating it, more people will grasp what it actually takes to innovate.

Only if we all agree that innovation takes a lot of risk, time, and courage we can definitely re-spark our human urge to create something new to improve our world.

What is your definition of innovation? Leave a comment below and I’ll join the discussion!

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