What’s (not) an Innovation?


Nowadays, innovation is very in fashion. As a person, you should be innovative (creative?). A product should be innovative to tempt you to buy it (why?). Research should be dedicated to innovations (instead of discoveries?). Or even worse, boards of directors feel compelled to proclaim a “year of innovation” or ask their employees for vibrant new ideas. . . But for what?

vibrant new ideas

But what is innovative, what is an innovation?

Fifteen innovation experts gave their definitions of innovation:  Executing an idea which addresses a specific challenge and achieves value for both the company and customer.

In our rather humourous Thinkibility nibble “Innovations that Complicate Things”, we suggested that some innovations seems to make things more complex, inconvenient, more costly or reduce value. Since then, we have seen tonnes of examples of so called innovations that actually reduces the quality of life. (P.S. Insert the last phrase into a search engine and you will get only examples of innovations that create value for people what illustrates the unconscious assumption that innovation is always good).

The definition contains four characteristics:

  1. An idea
  2. A challenge
  3. Value for the company
  4. Value for the customer

What is an idea? 

Apart from philosophical speculations – where ideas are usually seen as mental representational images of some object – ideas are in our opinion a result of breaking standard thinking patterns. A thinking pattern consists of a fixed entry point (definition of a situation) and a set of assumptions (things taken for granted).  Ideas that really break existing thinking patterns are often called disruptive, game-changing, breakthrough, blue ocean, out-of-the-box or even a new idea. Examples of this can be found in  “What Big Data, What Information Dominance?”.

Many creative thinking techniques produce hundreds of ideas, but what’s a good idea? To explore this topic we wrote the posts: “What is a Really Good Idea?” and “Thinking outside the Sea Map”.

It takes time and effort to transform an idea into an innovation. That is why a distinction is made between the stages of idea generation, innovation development – making the idea practical, prototyping it, calculating the business case, setting up production, pre-marketing- and implementation. Each of the stages requires different organisation, cultures, project management tools.


A challenge

An idea – to be practical- must satisfy a need. That might be:

  • a problem:  a gap between an existing situation and the desired situation
  • an improvement
  • an opportunity


Seven triggers or sources for innovation are mentioned by Peter Drucker:innovation_sources

The usefulness of this overview of sources and triggers for innovation is not in the summary or description. You can actively check your product or service against a trigger: an occasion or even a necessity to innovate?

To read more about what the main triggers are that push people to innovate in the technical area, look here for an interesting article by Valeri Souchkov.

The biggest problem, however, remains the tendency to ignore challenges because it is unknowingly assumed that they are impossible. In “The Thinking Habits of Steve Jobs” we wrote: Jobs did not settle for less than more than best. He simply ignored practical objections. That drove his designers to extraordinary, hitherto considered impossible performance. Moreover, the ability to ignore generally accepted impossibilities was the main criterion to select employees.


Challenge implies that there is a call to someone to participate in a competitive situation or fight to decide who is superior in terms of ability or strength, or that a task or situation is waiting that tests someone’s abilities. This is rather passive, but challenges can also be created deliberately: Create Opportunities. 

Value for the company and value for the customer

Some posts that explore the concept of Value are:

In general, values are not coming by itself, they should be designed.


Can you design something so that people stay politically engaged? How would you design a fabric that is made out of waste? What if it was possible to design a spot where people feel safe? Or a game that provides people suffering from Alzheimer game with a channel of communication? (To our post about New Brave Design Thinking Approach)

What is at heart of design when you design a hospital or health care systems? (To our post Empathy and Design Thinking)

In summary

In other words, we could say that an innovation consists of a new combination of

  • a function – the innovation has the purpose of satisfying a need
  • a principle – there is a mechanism or idea how to deliver that function
  • a market – the innovation has a value that can be traded.

But still remains the question: “When is an innovation really breaking patterns more than other innovations?. When is an innovation incremental? When radical? When is a technical solution just more-of-the-same routine engineering? What is the difference with a scientific invention? When is it patentable?



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A More Beautiful Question (2)

Here a sequel to How to Get a More Beautiful Question?


Defining the thinking task before beginning an idea generation session is one of the most neglected stages.

Most starting questions are far too broad defined. For instance. “In What Ways Might We (IWWMW) get more clients?”. It is more helpful to break it down in smaller topics, as in

  • “IWWMW add more value to our product”
  • “IWWMW get more clients with help of our existing clients”
  • “IWWMW use other product to sell ours”

Design at least 15 IWWMW’s by redefine the initial one in order to escape from the obvious and get a really creative challenge.

Avoid formulating IWWMW’s becoming too small. In that case the IWWMW will just be a concrete solution and will not give you a direction for further searching new ideas.

Then make the challenge less boring and more sexy. That is: make them more imaginative, outreaching, challenging, interesting. For instance: sex up “IWWMW get more clients by using our existing clients” into “our clients collect so much organic waste that we have to export it”.

Follow up by adding a constraint: people, money, time, channels.

Finally, construct a propelling question that has a contradiction in it.

A propelling question is one that drives forward the effort for creative thinking by using a bold ambition and a significant restriction. For instance: “let’s get 50 more clients by firing all account managers”.

The technique of the creative focus is to force oneself outside common thinking, already before the creative thinking session actually get started.



How to Get a More Beautiful Question?

Warren Berger presents in his book A More Beautiful Question a simple but effective thinking instruction to get better questions. He also argues that posing better questions become even more relevant as search engines gives a answers and at the same time offer us preset questions before we have even entered the question in full.

boxes 1It’s a simple but powerful frame to avoid obvious or even wrong questions:

The WHY? question enables you to question the situation in depth but you can also get a broad perspective.  I can alternate between broad “open” questions and narrow “closed”questions. Step back, and notice what is missed for others and yourself  – Challenge assumptions. Look for relations and patterns. Immerse into the situation, and don’t forget “to question the questions”. Take then ownership of one question, and repeat the WHY? process 7 times.

The WHAT IF? question allows us to think without limits or constraints beforehand (untested). Make associations that pop-up in your head, preferable as remotely related as possible. Think wrongly! The aim is to get feedback as a starting point for the HOW? question.

The HOW? question is about how we give form to our questions.

Use the WHAT IF? questions as starting points. Love dissonance and critic because that indicates that you might get to a breakthrough idea.

“Right now, knowledge is a commodity. Known answers are everywhere, and easily accessible. The value of explicit knowledge is dropping. The real value is in what you can do with that knowledge, in pursuit of a query.”

questionMore about questioning:

Questions about Questions

Getting to Innovation – How Asking the Right Questions – Arthur B. VanGundy

Think Better –An Innovators Guide to More Productive Thinking – Tim Hurson

How to be more interesting – Edward de Bono

The New Currency Is Time – Thinkibility Nibble

In times past there was a barter economy. Goods were exchanged for other goods. Yet the exchange did not have to take place at the same time, it could be up to a year later.

A major economic innovation was the invention of money in form of silver, pearls or any other valued, but scarce goods. The advantage was that the payment took place immediately, but also that the seller was not dependent upon what the buyer had to offer.

Nowadays, money is not scarce anymore since most of the money is not backed by a substantial amount of gold. But there are many problems with the money economy as we known. There are large differences in income between people and countries, which this year was one of the major topics at the World Economic Forum in Davos. It  is possible to manipulate the money streams as the economic crisis recently has shown. And last but not least, it has led to a materialistic world and a tendency to express everything in “earning bugs”.

What if the currency would be Time?


What if we leave an economy based on exchange of goods for an economy totally based on an exchange of time?

We do not suggest  that occasionally a dentist and a hairdresser could exchange half an hour of their time, where they offer each other skilled labour. There are many initiatives of this kind of  exchange currencies, especially in countries plagued by the economic crisis. Tax offices have a lot of problems with those spontaneous initiatives, as can be seen here. Often the system provides you with opportunities where you can place your surplus money on a virtual time bank. This means that  you do not  have the disadvantage of the system where you can only trade in equal amounts of time. For example, someone mows someone else’s lawn for an hour in exchange for a repair of a computer that took two hours.

It would be very interesting to research the relative “price” of the goods and services that are traded, but it seems that the amount of minutes spent by each party is equally valued. The time spend by a plumber is of equal value of that of the baby sitter.

We mean here that all currency is expressed in time, not as a parallel system in a dominant money economy.


It’s mind bogging to imagine what the world would look like, it is also difficult to visualize . Therefore, it is a good exercise in Thinkibility skills!

An interesting aspect is that the (time) value of  every product would be expressed in the time it has cost to produce it. An iPad “cost” a certain amount of minutes. Another interesting aspect is that everybody have a limited amount of minutes available during his or her life time. But what will happen when someone has spent  all the minutes in his or her life time?

What would be the consequences for crafts? Would an economy based on time as a currency improve the efficiency of time usage for some tasks, or just the other way around? Would the productivity sky-rocket because machines do not  consume time, but to design and produce them cost time? Today  it is much cheaper to fly from Paris to London than taking the train. However, taking the train costs much less time.

Are there some sub-cultures where actually the currency is time? Some tribe, alternative community or an art collective where we can study the effects?

How can you spend your minutes when your are not working, f.e. on holidays?

Nowadays, employees give time to a company in exchange of money, related to their knowledge, skills, experience and age. If the currency is time, will companies pay in minutes for the hours spent in the company, regardless of the capacity an employee brings to the task? Or will it be the other way around. But why should we spend hours in company if we do not earn more minutes? And could we instead of spending time working,  playing with the kids? If you are going to school, you are loosing time. Could you earn more  time by meditating?

Would it be possible to invest in time? To give time away for free?

If time is your most precious currency, might it not important to think about what might happen if the new  currency would  be time. Or is that a wast of time?


To learn more, read here or the Wiki article

World’s Most Interesting Reversals (2) – Thinkibility Boost

As a follow-up of an earlier post about Reversals, we present here some more examples. A Reversal reverses the usual sequence or direction of doing something. For instance: Normally a product is delivered after the customer places the order. A Reversal could be that the customer places the order after the product is delivered. What ideas may come out of this turn? Also this time, some examples we derived from This Explains Everything, a 150 of the most surprising stories and brilliant theories of the way our minds, societies and universe work.


 A good and fast way to crank out some new ideas is to reverse them.

Reversals are also known as Assumptions Reversals. It is a powerful thinking strategy that could lead to some interesting ideas and new concepts because they provoke the conventional way of thinking and challenges generally accepted wisdom. Out of an excessive interest we have collected some most stunning examples.

  • In many conversations it is conveniently assumed that a company, the government or another institution is one and the same actor, and it’s actions are interpreted as that from a real human who behaves rationally. That is to say, the actor examines a set of goals, evaluates them according to their utility, then picks the one that has the highest “payoff.” 

A Reversal could be that behavior of organisations could be interpreted as a result of negotiating processes between parts of an organization (“Governmental Politics“) or as standardized and automatic outcomes of Organizational Procedures and/or routines.

  • onderhandelen
  • 8 uurs workday
  • time mgt GTD
  • Bruno Latour
  • Normally, companies pay for advertisements directed on broad defined target groups in advance and regardless weather they are read or not.

GoogleAds has this reversed. A company pays only for an advertisement if it is actually read by a prospective client. Many new business models are based on Reversals. One such a Reversal is that the receiver of the product/service don’t pay for it, but that it is paid for by a third party.

  • Many people believe that higher education of the population, science and availability of medical services are responsible for lower infant mortality and longer life.

It is not. Safe drinking water and sewage treatment plants have been instrumental in improving health.

  • Heliocentrism – the astronomical model in which the Earth and planets revolve around a relatively stationary Sun at the center of the Solar System- is the Reversal of the Geocentrism -a description of the cosmos where Earth is at the orbital center of all celestial bodies.
  • Before 1982, conventional thinking was that no bacterium can live in the human stomach, as the stomach produced extensive amounts of acid of a strength similar to the acid found in a car battery.

Marshall and Warren rewrote the textbooks with reference to what causes gastritis and gastric ulcers: a bacterium with affinity for acidic environments: the Helicobacter pylori. In hindsight, it is amazing that already in 1875 it is hypothesized that ulcers are caused by bacteria. The timeline of the discovery illustrates how much effort it takes to become mainstream knowledge,

A Reversal is that cities are the primary drivers of economic development, as Jane Jacobs has put forward,

  • In psychoanalysis conflicts between conscious and unconscious, or repressed, material can materialize in the form of mental or emotional disturbances, for example: neurosis, neurotic traits, anxiety, depression etc. Solving repressed conflicts by talking and freely associating would lead to reduced symptoms of emotional disturbance.

However, Aaron Beck reversed this approach by hypothesizing that different disorders were associated with different types of distorted thinking. By helping patients identify and evaluate these thoughts, patients were able to think more realistically, which led them to feel better emotionally and behave more functionally. This Reversal initiated Cognitive Behavioral Therapies. He began helping patients identify and evaluate these thoughts and found that by doing so, patients were able to think more realistically, which led them to feel better emotionally and behave more functionally.

  • Ha-Joon Chang suggests in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism twenty-three Reversals of theories and empirical facts that are accepted by most professionals that cloud our financial institutions like “there is no such thing as a free market”, “we do not live in a post-industrial age”, “Africa is not destined for underdevelopment”, “despite the fall of communism, we are still living in planned economies” and “More education in itself is not going to make a country richer“.


The future is often a reverse of the assumptions of the present.

24/7 Patterns of Activity – Thinkibility Boost


Our daily work, social and private life is regulated by patterns. Patterns that dictate what you do, where your are and who you encounter. It seems that these are shifting from an industrial pattern wherein people are locked in a 5 or 6 days working routine from 8 am to 6 pm, mostly nailed down by law or by labor agreements. Yet even in a post-industrial era the industrial pattern is omnipresent.

Industrial patterns of activities

 However libraries are mostly accessible in the evening, most services as GP’s, dentists, therapeutics, plumbers, banks and hairdressers are not. School and industry hours are not synchronized. Museums are open at hours when nobody can visit.

Needless to say that the complete infrastructure (roads, bus lines, train schedules, offices) is based on the industrial working pattern. It means that public means are spend less efficient than when the load on the infrastructure is more evenly distributed.

Once I asked some employed women with school-going kids what their ultimate utopian business hours would be. They were not able to come up with the idea of working hours for parents with school-going kids between 10.00 am. and 3.00 pm. Impossible they said when the idea was put forward. Yet an employment agency did at the same moment profitable business by offering women precisely that kind of working hours. Alternative business hours were for them simply not conceivable.

Apparently the industrial pattern of working hours, social and private life are firmly rooted in the mind despite the fact that many women – and their partners – suffer from it while basically it is in many occupations not necessary to use these patterns.

24/7 patterns are increasingly changing

Only gradually evening and night shops have appeared. In many countries the ban on Sunday opening hours of shops has been partially lifted. Some “innovations” emerged, such as the business lunch and the working breakfast. Most car repairs have extended opening hours to give their clients the opportunity to bring their cars before their offices are open.

However, under pressure of the development of the Internet shops become increasingly, at least virtually, 24 hours a day open during seven days a week. Teams in different time zones speed up development projects. Doctors in LA let people working in India analyze x-ray photos in the night after the photo is taken (see also The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman).

Working at home for at least one day a week is encouraged by some companies.

Most hotels rent rooms from 1.00 pm till the next morning 11 am. Nowadays at some airports you can rent rooms for two hours to take a nap between flights. But what if hotels would offer not only a sleeping place from 1.00 pm. to 11 am the next morning, but from 7 pm to 7 am the next morning and from 8 am till 5 pm that afternoon?

Universities has begun giving lectures during evening hours, something that was not even thinkable a couple of decades ago.

The first 24/7 Fitness Club started already some 15 years ago but are still not wide-spread. It is interesting to speculate who might be the visitors of such a fitness club during the dark hours. The short movie 24/7 Fitness Club sketches a picture.

Future patterns – from static to dynamic?

Most criminals are lockup 24/7, but some criminals have regular weekend leave or are only locked up after working hours. But what if criminals could be punished by being locking up 1 day a week or for 1 hour per day during thirty years?

Dancing schools and ball rooms are mostly open in the evening. One of our subscribers got the idea to combine a lunchroom with dancing lessons or as a “ lunch dansant”. I am sure it would be a viable enterprise especially if it is located near some boring offices.

What if offices were open 24/7 a week? One partner could work from 8 am till 15.30 and the other partner could work 9.30 pm. till 5 am the next morning. What if it is possible to sleep in the office?

 What if hospitals were organized as industrial 24/7 production lines?

 In the past financial statements were made once a year, but nowadays most companies make them four times a year or even every month. As it is known that some control systems could become unstable when the rate of the feedback mechanism is increased, it is conceivable that companies in future will present their financial results once every ten years?

 Is it imaginable that because of the health effects of a siesta – a short nap in the afternoon, mostly after the midday meal – a siesta becomes obligatory in Western countries?

 In most countries a child is obliged to go to school for 12 to 18 years, a patterns that originated in the Industrial Revolution. Nowadays there are some weak appeals to “Lifelong Learning” or Adult Education. Would in future obligatory education for adults  be introduced for citizens over 40 years?

World Thinkers’ Ideas – Degrees of Impossibilites

Learning from history is difficult and often the same mistakes are repeated over and over again. And history has repeatedly shown that it is dangerous to say that some things are impossible.

To find a solution to any problem you have to believe that there is an answer. If you have lost your mobile phone in your house, you will search until you find it. If you ask yourself, “Is there a mobile phone in my house?” well, chances are that you will not search for long. The same idea should be used when we are trying to solve a problem, or are looking for a new idea. The perception that there is a solution means that we have to start looking we need to decide techniques where to look and how. In contrast, if we ask ourselves “Is there a solution?”  It is easy to give up an answer the question with “No there is not solution, it is impossible.”

Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist and the author of “Physics of the Impossible”, distinguishes between three different types of impossibilities. A hierarchy of impossibilities. Kaku says that Class 1 impossibilities are things that can be achieved in the near future. Today scientists are working on invisibility cloaks and there is optimism that it will soon be possible to make an object invisible. Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak may be a possibility within this century.

In contrast, Class 2 impossibilities are tricky and it may take thousands or millions of years to achieve. Often these types of   ideas require enormous amounts of energy and they require that we use physics that is little understood. Today, it may be impossible to build a time machine and it may not be possible this millennium. But declaring it as an impossibility is a different matter. Stephen Hawkins tried in the 1990s but he failed to prove that it is impossible to build a time machine.

The third type of impossibility violates known laws of physics. Some ideas can be truly impossible or we may have to discover some new laws of physics to make carry out the idea. Kaku suggests, that building a perpetual motion machine is a Class 3 impossibility.

In a subject such as physics, it may be easy to distinguish between different types of impossibilities, since it is possible to refer to the laws of physics. However, this idea can be applied to thinking about other subjects. Instead of saying that an idea is impossible it may be fruitful to explore why and to what degrees an idea is impossible.Is the idea that we can reduce the number of armed robberies with 99 percent, class 1 or 2 impossibility? How impossible is the idea with global citizens? And can we take all traffic signs away and still reduce the number of traffic accidents?

Photo: “Spheres Balance” by Danilo Rizzuti