Are You an Innovator?

Isaac Newton-1689: Godfrey Kneller, Wikipedia

People are often confused about whether they are innovators or not. They might think of Steve Jobs and say to themselves, “That’s not me, I have never done anything remotely that significant.” They question whether they are, or can be, innovators. When asked, most academics say they are definitely not innovators. But they are, or should be. This confusion is destructive because it limits what people believe they can do, and because it discourages the use of processes that would allow them to achieve more.

David Nordfors, who runs the i4j Innovation for Jobs Summit, and I were discussing this. David succinctly defines innovation as “the introduction of a new narrative”, i.e. a new type of story.  He is developing this important idea on his blog and in a book he is writing.  If a product does not come with a compelling new narrative it will likely struggle in the marketplace. That is, developing a compelling narrative is an essential element of the value creation process.

In an earlier post here I defined innovation as, “the creation and delivery of new customer value in the marketplace with a sustainable business model.” These definitions read very differently because they are aimed at different audiences, but they are similar in most respects. David gives a broad, fundamental definition that emphasizes a critical aspect of all new innovations  — they come with a story.  The definition I generally use is more for innovators in an enterprise whose goal is to create successful products or services.  And, yes, they must create a narrative to be successful.  If there is no narrative, there is no innovation.

All innovations create new knowledge and introduce a new narrative, a new type of story.  It is not possible to create something new without describing it and telling stories about what it is and does, both within the innovation team and for customers who will use it.

For example, once you have seen and used your first smartphone your narrative of computing devices is profoundly changed; the smartphone created a new type of story delivered to customers in the marketplace.  All innovations create surprising new knowledge and narratives. Disruptive innovations create surprisingly disruptive new narratives. For example, after I bought my first smartphone I was so pleasantly surprised that I showed it to all my friends. Steve Jobs had created a remarkable new product and completely changed the narrative about what computing devices can do.

David’s definition tacitly assumes that this new knowledge and narrative have value to society (i.e., customers) and that this narrative has a measure of sustainability in the marketplace (i.e., in society). That new knowledge and narrative can be delivered as a physical object, a service, or a concept. But all important new products or services come with new narratives. Once that narrative becomes understood, it becomes the background narrative that carries with it new knowledge. The next innovation must create additional new, surprising knowledge with yet another narrative.

Most innovations require a profitable enterprise to be sustainable. But a new narrative can create its own sustainable business model. That is, when it provides a concept that people want to share with others or use for some new purpose.  For example, different religions are among the most important, sustainable innovations. Billions of people follow their commandments every day.

In other cases sustainable innovations can be created by volunteers who want to be part of something that is important to them, like Wikipedia. Generally the greater the significance of the innovation, the greater its sustainability. The wheel — a round solid object that rotates around an axel — will likely always be with us.

The connection between new narratives and innovation is critical for understanding the significance of different kinds of contributions to society. The original hula hoop was a world-wide entertainment craze in the 1950s but the new narrative created — the concept of a toy hoop that is twirled around the waist, limbs or neck, called a “hula hoop” — remains. They are still sold in dozens of different forms around the world.

What about academics pursuing research? One of their main responsibilities is the creation of new knowledge and narratives. If they are successful, like Newton with his Three Laws of Motion, the new knowledge and its narrative assumes a central role in how society thinks and acts. Given the ubiquity and impact of these three laws, David points out that it is hard to think of a more important innovation from a scientist. In this same pantheon of great innovators are Shakespeare, Beethoven, de Vinci, and others. Of course if one publishes 200 papers that have no lasting value, then there is no innovation — no lasting new knowledge has been created.

Innovations can take many forms.  The best reporters are innovators. Tom Friedman is one. His objective is to create new value for his readers through a perceptive understanding of global issues, and he wants that understanding to stick. For example, thanks to Friedman’s book, The World is Flat, millions of people understand and think more intelligently about our era. He realizes he must satisfy David’s three rules for a new concept.  It must have: 1) a name so that we can refer to it, 2) a definition so that we know what it is or isn’t, and 3) a narrative so that we can relate to it. Or as Friedman says, “To name it is to own it.”

Customer value (i.e., benefits/costs) is strictly a perceptual quantity so it’s unlimited in type and scope.  It follows that not all innovations are positive. Think of Fascism.  We may despair that these activities exist, but they clearly have sustaining value for many.

Politicians can develop major new innovations for society. But how many politicians even know the definition of innovation? Having more people in Congress with innovative skills would clearly be beneficial, since innovation and entrepreneurship are the primary drivers of our economy. But political goals are too often the polar opposite of those of innovators and entrepreneurs. They are focused on centralization, control, and maintaining the status quo; not on creating valuable new innovative surprises across the base of society.

Fortunately positive innovations that move society forward are constantly being created. The definition of innovation described here — “the creation of surprising new knowledge and narratives that have sustaining value to society” — can help people better understand that they have a role as innovators.  Since new knowledge and narratives are produced by people, they are effectively an inexhaustible resource.

Most technological innovations are small, but they all matter. Thousands of small and medium sized innovations accumulate and occasionally another transformational innovation, like the smartphone, is created. These disruptive innovations come with surprising new knowledge, language, and narratives. The world is forever changed.

To compete, enterprises continuously strive to improve by creating new knowledge and narratives. To this end, we should be using those practices and processes that best accelerate progress.  Achieving this would also be a major innovation.  It has the potential of creating enormous new value for society.