Definitions of…

Last night I was at an innovation event where the thorny issue of definitions came up. That is, definitions of innovation.

Now, as you've probably seen in your own organisations, dare to utter the word "innovation" and no one will be able to agree on what it is, much less how to achieve it. So too it was last night at this dinner.

One bright spark suggested that it was pointless to try to define innovation since no agreement would ever be reached ever. Far better, he thought, to let people have their own opinion and just move on.

I, however, disagree, and the reason is this: multiple divergent opinions on what you're trying to achieve with an innovation programme generally lead you to achieving nothing at all.

Here is our definition at the bank: innovation is anything that we might do which would not have been achieved through ordinary business as usual processes. It is a convenient definition because it tightly defines our area of responsibility, and also our scope for what can reasonably be done.

We don't, for example, tweak interest rates, terms and conditions, or product marketing. All of those things have very good processes surrounding them already. There are quite a few Lean and Six Sigma groups running around which have the goal of improving those, anyway.

On the other hand, we do often make changes to specific business processes in unusual ways. The other day, for example, we spent a while considering how we could put a left-field administrative process on an ATM. This is not something that would ordinary have come up through the ATM team, but was a suggestion made internally by someone. We're dumping that, by the way. Too hard, too expensive, and would likely create the longest queues ever seen.

My point in all of this, however, is that our definition of innovation allows us to touch anything truly new whilst not interfering in places which are already well established, and have their own improvement processes in place. It is also convenient that it doesn't place any limits on how small or how large the innovations must be to count. We can go from incremental to radical without modifying anything at all.

I've often said that the foundation of an innovation programme is the means of collecting ideas and doing things with them, but last night's discussion has made me rethink that. The true foundation is getting a definition – doesn't really matter if not everyone likes it – and sticking with it. Then, at least, you have something to aim for, and won't kill yourself trying to please everyone.



2 Responses to“Definitions of…”

  1. May 18, 2009 at 1:42 pm #

    Hi James.
    You are on target as usual. We typically require a definition of innovation before we’ll start an innovation project or program. Without a consistent, agreed definition of innovation, you’ll typically find one of three outcomes: 1) an interesting idea is generated that some member of the executive team says is “not” innovative and there’s no objective way to prove them right or wrong 2) an idea is generated that is very incremental or has been done before so the project is deemed a “waste of time” 3) ideas that are generated are too “disruptive” and therefore nonsensical. Working without an agreed innovation definition is like working without an agreed project scope – at the end of the project success is defined by those with agendas different from yours, and the absence of an agreed standard is deadly.

  2. May 19, 2009 at 8:30 am #

    I suppose the hardest part of getting an innovation definition is getting agreement. In this field, there are so many experts.
    I like your use of the word “disruptive” in this comment. It has inspired me to write a new post: (

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