The Three I's of Innovation

The Three I's of InnovationMany business blogs will pose the question “what is innovation?” and then descend into an erudite semantic fog. Let’s just answer the question and do so in a way that points forward to responsibilities and actions.

First, a general definition: innovation is anything “new and useful.” All three words are essential, and no more. Thus, a clever invention that never helps or delights anyone isn’t innovation, nor is a very useful ripoff of an old product. “New and useful” can apply to processes or services as well as physical products, of course.

Now let’s get more specific and in a way that points to action. An expanded definition (perfectly compatible with “new and useful”) is that innovation consists of the “three I’s”, namely inspiration, invention, and implementation, in that order, and again with all three essential before we can say we are innovative. Thomas Edison’s light bulb wonderfully illustrates all three.


Electrically powered hot filament light bulbs predated Edison’s invention by at least 40 years. Nearly every separate technical aspect was known before Edison began working on the bulb in 1878. We can surmise that his inspiration consisted of the confidence that a diligent attack on the multiple flaws of previous designs could produce something to sell to a huge latent demand.


Invention consists of that first proof-of-principle, that first prototype that suffices to convince others to commit to the greater tasks of implementation ahead. In Edison’s case, the invention consisted of a series of hand-made bulbs that lasted 13, 40, and then 1,200 hours before burning out.

Notably, even at this first physical stage the invention is really a system more than a single thing: in our example that meant filament materials, a state-of-the-art vacuum pump, and Menlo Park, a team and process for innovation.


Implementation is the difficult, lengthy, and expensive part of innovation. It is the reduction to practice and scale of the invention, and usually includes manufacturing, distribution, marketing, and sales. It involves many more people, more money, and more tangible risk than inspiration or invention – but without implementation, nothing matters.

Where Edison differed from his predecessors, and why he’s generally credited with the innovation, is that he conceived and built an entire power generation and distribution infrastructure to support the bulb: the Pearl Street generating station began selling electricity to New York customers in 1882. Here is Thomas Hughes, one of Edison’s biographers:

“The lamp was a small component in his system of electric lighting, and no more critical to its effective functioning than the Edison Jumbo generator, the Edison main and feeder, and the parallel-distribution system. Other inventors with generators and incandescent lamps, and with comparable ingenuity and excellence, have long been forgotten because their creators did not preside over their introduction in a system of lighting.”

So that’s what innovation is: something new and useful, born of inspiration, invention, and finally implementation. Perhaps the most important aspect of this definition is that it helps us avoid the happy delusion that any of the following, by themselves, will make our organizations innovative:

  • making “innovation” a company value or goal
  • hiring innovation consultants
  • setting up an idea generation system
  • putting up an outside website to get ideas from customers

All these may be good things to do. They might be necessary, they are certainly not sufficient without the three I’s backing up their outcomes. We all know Edison’s remark that genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. Here’s another quote from the master to remind us about those icky, complex tasks of invention and implementation:

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing

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Rob SpencerDr. Robin Spencer recently retired as Senior Research Fellow at Pfizer Inc. where he created and ran an internal idea management system and launched more than 200 challenges, an average of one a week. He is now the director of research at Imaginatik, an innovation management consultancy and software provider in Boston.

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Rob Spencer




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No Comments

  1. Howard Davis on March 17, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    I have read many accounts of Edison’s development of the electrical lighting system, but most leave out the fact that Edison made a definite improvement in the design of the incandescent bulb. Yes, there were many designs and patents on light bulbs before Edison, but all were of low resistance. Because of their low resistance much copper was needed to carry the load. Edison’s insight that a high resistance bulb was necessary was the key. After he made this discovery his mathematician calculated that only 1/100th the copper would be needed for a high resistance system in comparison to a low resistance system. This made it economically viable. The cost of copper wire would otherwise have made electrical lighting too expensive to compete with natural gas lighting systems.

  2. Roy Luebke on March 17, 2011 at 3:08 pm


    It is actually much simpler than your description. Innovation is the creation of anything new that generates economic value. By extension, economic value is created when customer value is increased.

    The key point is an organization must take the new thing to market and make money. Innovation is a result of the three I’s that you define. Your description is helpful in defining “how” to achieve innovation.

    Where people get bogged down is how much innovation they are interested in developing. I think of it as a spectrum of innovation from incremental to transformational. It is the degree of risk a business leader is willing to support that tells them where they are along the spectrum. THAT discussion can get complicated. If you ask any business leader if they are innovative (I hate that word) they say Of Course!

    Most businesses are focused on incremental innovation, not transformational. So the real question to ask is how much innovation is required to meet a company’s strategy and generate increased profits.

  3. Debra M. Amidon on March 18, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    What a fun post!
    Picked it up in Innovation America…

    Years ago when I visited Colombia, I summariezed the conference’s insights using the following:

    – INNOVATION definitions are important. Use them as a way to develop a common language and shared purpose.

    – INDICATORS will be new – beyond traditional financial metrics. Develop an understanding of the intangible, hidden and intellectual indicators to navigate future success.

    – INTEGRATION of existing efforts is essential. Develop a coherence and connectivity among initiatives in order to reap the full potential impact of efforts.

    – INTELLECTIAL CAPITAL is as important to manage as a renewable resource – moreso than land, labor and capital. Develop strategies to harness the real-time learning capability of the nation across the functions sectors, and industries.

    – INTERNATIONAL economies of scale and in scope can help. Consider the world as your sandbox; Think globally and act locally.

    – INTELLIGENCE gathering about the competition. Develop a system to monitor the trends and progress of others…tracking where they are headed, not where they have been.

    – INDIVIDUALS provide the foundation of action. The Knowledge Economy is not something that will be done to us; it is something we will do…together!

    Maybe we can evolve the conversation?!

    It is a start…

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