What is Innovation?

If you ask around about what innovation actually is, you may well get many different answers. One common answer you will probably get is that innovation is linked to creative idea generation (some call that ideation). Whilst creative ideas are important (for us it this is encapsulated within ‘re-imagining’ or even ‘imagining’), we believe that innovation actually is about ideas that can and are put into action and yeild tangible results – it’s all about the change that actually happens.

At its most basic, there are 3 types of innovation:


  1. Adaptive innovation (sometimes also called incremental innovation or continuous improvement). This is what many organisations say they are doing much of the time (although there is sometimes little evidence of it on the ground) – and is valuable in improving an organisation’s efficiency and effectiveness, and for fending off direct competition. Organisations need to get this right, and many spend considerable time, energy and budget on this type of innovation. While this type of innovation often helps to reduce costs, speed up delivery or improve service, there remains a risk that competitors could be making significant advances that make your current product or service redundant.
  2. Transfer innovation results from looking elsewhere (outside of your business, market, or even field of business), to find ideas that could be applied to your business, product or service, or to solve a problem in an entirely new way. Transfer innovation usually leads to significant advances in product or service development.
  3. Transformative or Disruptive innovation is the rarest type of innovation – where organisations create entirely new products or services that did not exist before. Transformative innovation can render products, services or even entire markets redundant, or can create completely new markets that did not previously exist. Organisations successfully implementing transformative innovation are often (but not always) first to market and can dominate for some time. Some companies invest a huge amount in ‘transformative innovation’ – these can be anything from the tech start-ups to the ‘Moonshot’ programmes by the likes of Google.

So … where to start?

P1070465Innovation needs more than just brainstorming

A recent study led by Sarah Kaplan of Wharton Business School and the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto highlights an important aspect of innovation that can get overlooked … the importance of in-depth expertise of the topic at hand.

In particular, the study demonstrates that, in addition to creative “combinatory” methods providing innovative breakthroughs, there is an equally important process of the “deep dive” and of deep knowledge in the domain or subject matter. This leads Kaplan to conclude (and we agree) that …

Brainstorming is important … but is not sufficient for transformative innovation


see www.presencing.com for a more in-depth description of Theory-U



This finding supports the Theory-U approach to solving complex problems developed by Otto Scharma around a decade ago.


Get the right people into the conversation

These insights are crucial for anyone seeking to tackle wicked, fuzzy, ill-defined or just plain hard problems.

The key message is that you need the “right” people in the conversation, and allow considerable thinking time (for a deep dive into the subject at hand) in order to get to the best outcomes.

So who are the right people? In order to get an end-to-end understanding of the problem and potential solutions, you need to consider including …

  • Problem /Challenge owner: the person or people who need or want to see the problem solved
  • The Team: the ones tasked with solving the problem
  • Customers / End Users: people who will actually benefit once the problem is addressed
  • Suppliers & Partners: people or organisations who provide input into your product, service or process
  • Additional creatives & facilitators: it can be helpful to bring in outsiders with specific skills who can be friendly “agent provocateurs” (communicators, facilitators, artists, systemic thinkers etc.)

Implementation is everything

For innovation to have real value and meaning, there has to effective implementation. Whilst “big bang” implementations can deliver great value, they often take months or years to come to fruition.

HackMyBusiness most often advocates a “test-learn-iterate” approach to implementation, inspired by the agile approach to software development. This is not only because it can be possible to gain tangible benefits quickly, even with a prototype solution, but just as importantly, it is often not possible to invent a perfect solution (particularly to complex problems), and the optimal answer will only reveal itself over time, with real experience contributing to refining the solution.