Toward a Better Definition of Innovation

Innovation is one of those words that mean something different to each person that hears it. When you describe the whole framework as an Innovation Process the confusion compounds exponentially. The word Process is more misleading than the word Innovation.

Here’s why. The word process connotes a linear form of systemization and optimization, given the many processes that were formed under the banner of industrialization and the scientific management worldview.

Therefore, when the phrase Innovation Process is uttered, minds befuddle and cloud with a myriad of inaccurate meanings. The word process has been co-opted to mean a step-by-step sequence that makes doing something more efficient by a given system of measurement. Notions of other processes for manufacturing concepts or actual goods prove this theory: Lean, Six Sigma, TQM, Kaizen, for example.

The ghost of Edward Winslow Taylor haunts the word process. As a mechanical engineer and as the father of Scientific Management, Taylor was the philosophical force behind many of the principals used during the Industrial Revolution. Most of his consulting was based in applying engineering concepts to make factory function at a higher rate of productivity.

All of the types of processes listed above are based in Taylor’s school of thought. In this system process equals Value Engineering. This system is where you derive new value by squeezing it out of an existing system.

In innovation, the process equals New Value Creation. This process of creation is non-linear, even iterative, insights-based, and way-finding, a process of discovery, not optimization. Sometimes, it can be like playing the children’s game Chutes and Ladders as the team gains ground, then has to revert back to an earlier stage in the framework to dig deeper.

Or, think of the difference this way. In the Industrial World processes were logical, but in the Post-Industrial World (the age of networks, our era) processes are psychological, just like the humans we serve and the dynamic market itself. The world we inhabit changes so fast. Organizations die everyday, or leap across the ocean in a flash.

The dizzying rate of change happens as fast as Google Fiber allows it to move, which is much faster than the naked eye can see. To define the word Process from a bygone era means to miss the unveiling of the emerging world and its quantum quick, disruptive, dynamic glory—and it miss the opportunities that only a rebirth of perception allows to see.

Next time you hear the phrase Innovation Process pay attention. Let it serve as a mantra to wake you up to a new realm of possibilities of new value creation, new systems, new business models, new ways to be in the market, different methods for solving vexing problems.

Don’t let the monkeys of your mind spit out historic meanings of important words that impede your understanding. Yes, value engineering and its processes will always have its place in the world, but an Innovation Process has nothing to do with that mindset or set of practices. Generating new value by seeing the world and its needs in new ways is the essence of an Innovation Process.

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Michael Graber is the cofounder and managing partner at Southern Growth Studio, a Memphis, Tennessee-based firm that specializes in growth strategy and innovation. He speaks and publishes frequently on best practices in design thinking, business strategy, and innovation and earned an MFA from the University of Memphis. His new book, Going Electric is now available in eBook and paperback.

Michael Graber




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1 Comment

  1. Braden Kelley on June 2, 2016 at 8:04 pm

    Many people tell me that my definition of innovation is quite good – “Innovation transforms the useful seeds of invention into widely adopted solutions valued above every existing alternative.” – Braden Kelley

    I hope you find it valuable. 🙂

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