Innovation, creativity, and invention… If you’re reading this book, you must have heard all of these terms. They may seem similar, but each carries a distinct meaning. What comes to your mind when you think of innovation? How is it different from invention? And what about creativity? Whenever I pose these questions at conferences or in classrooms, most of the time I hear unclear answers. If you’re confused too, this chapter is just for you.
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) describes innovation in its latest guideline (ISO 56000) as a new or modified entity that produces or redistributes value. In the business world, the most concise definition of innovation is creating new value. Value means benefit. If something meets someone’s need, it’s beneficial and therefore valuable. So, solutions that provide new benefits to someone can be considered innovations.
This ‘new benefit’ could be an enhancement of an existing one, such as a mobile phone battery that extends from a few days to several months of use on a single charge. Alternatively, it might involve providing a benefit that has not been seen before, like introducing a blood pressure measurement feature on a phone. These enhancements and new features both represent innovation.
From the definition of creating benefits, you’ve probably noticed that innovation doesn’t always require a completely new solution or to address an entirely untouched need in order to create new value. Innovation can be as simple as adapting an existing solution to a different need or improving upon a current solution. Most innovations we encounter daily fall into the last category, like the use of microwave technology in food preparation, which was initially developed for communication and radar. Similarly, Play-Doh was originally produced as wallpaper cleaner in the 1930s when it first hit the market. At one time in the United States, in a kindergarten in Cincinnati, teachers used this product to have children make Christmas decorations, and afterwards, its use as play dough became widespread. In the 1950s, the product was reconfigured and rebranded, and began to be marketed as a toy. When you look at the stories of products like the Coca-Cola soft drink, Listerine mouthwash, WD-40 water repellent and rust remover, and the Mac Mini computer, you can see that they are examples of innovation that have arisen by transferring a solution from one area to another.
The benefit derived from a solution is determined by those who use it. Therefore, a solution can have different values for different groups. While the tablet at home is a perfect tool for me to take notes, read e-books and e-magazines; for my children, it may just be a gaming device that alleviates boredom during travels. While the tablet may be an unbelievably valuable solution for me since it offers me tons of convenience by replacing many things, it may not be as precious for my children, being just one of many gaming devices available for them.
So how do we understand that a solution creates new value and how much it creates? Famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has significant research on innovation, says that we cannot understand the value of any solution without being seen, used, and appraised by the users. Let me give a few examples to explain Mihaly’s point of view.
Those who are old enough may remember how the product named Segway was introduced in 2002 with a massive media campaign. Before the public demonstration of the product, curiosity was piqued with the slogan “An invention that will change the world is coming!” The CEO of the company had said for Segway, “What the car did to the horse and buggy, this product will do to the car!” John Doerr, a famous angel investor who invested in the product, had predicted that the sales would break historical records, reaching a billion dollars in an unprecedented short time. However, despite the years that have passed, the product has not gone beyond being a vehicle for shopping mall security officers. All predictions regarding the magnitude of the value the product offered to customers turned out to be empty.
Google’s Google Plus platform, launched in 2011, was not as lucky as Segway. When Google executives promoted the platform, they were extremely confident that it would shake the throne of Facebook and take a large slice of the social media pie. Meanwhile, Google Plus was indeed better than Facebook in many ways. But the Google Plus solution also failed to go through the social evaluation process that Mihalyi mentioned. After eight years of persistence, and still not achieving the level of use it aimed for, Google shut down the platform in August 2019.
Now, let’s consider the concept of inventiveness. It is about creating a truly novel and different solution that represents a leap. Most of the time, inventions come up by combining several known concepts or solutions into something new. Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone and Philo Farnsworth’s first television are good examples for invention. Inventions may take long time to create real value for someone and turn into an innovation.
Lastly, let’s discuss creativity. Creativity is the ability to use imagination to produce something unique. While creativity itself doesn’t require the creation of new value, it’s a critical component in the process of innovation. A unique idea signifies creativity. If the idea or solution, whether unique or not, creates new value, it becomes an innovation.