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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Value Engineering

Value Engineering

A common method is to explore values is to use value engineering where we determine the value of goods or services by looking at the ratio between cost and function. The goods or services are examined and the first stages in value engineering are information gathering and analysis. This is a creative method where alternative ways of meeting the requirements are explored.

The evaluation consists of an assessment of how well the alternatives meet the required functions and how great the savings it will be. This method is a successful approach towards determining the best value for money goods or services. In this method, value is defined as the function that satisfies the customers need at the lowest overall cost. Yet value can be defined in several different ways, and this method does not suggest a way to explore other values. For example, elegance and simplicity is rarely valued. Simplicity should be a value we value so highly that we build it into everything.

The Art of Simplicity

Many think the music of Bach is very complicated. Most of the time the music is in fact surprisingly simple when one takes a closer look at his compositions as the video in the attached link will show you. The video is self-explanatory even if you cannot read notes. This music may serve as an inspiration and/or eye-opener.

Impact a single adaption has on the overall.

  • Gradual evolution of a process.
  • The number of inventive principles used.
  • The interaction of multiple seemingly independent elements.
  • The impact of keeping things as simple as possible.

We recommend the book “In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the best Ideas have Something  Missing”  by Matthew E. May and Guy Kawasaki.

A question that often whizz around is what is our value proposition? What value have we added? Finding a method that creates a specific framework that is pliable and can be expanded may be a challenge. You can try to direct your attention to different aspect that may be important to consider when you are searching for values, for example, personal, organisational, or environmental factors. If you generate more ideas, the need to find and explore the values and to make priorities becomes more highlighted. This help you to ensure that the best and most urgent values are maximized every step on the way.

Photo: “Values Definition Button” by Stuart Miles

Streamlining Your Thinking

Perfection may be achieved when there is nothing left to take away. Michelangelo saw David through the block of marble and he simple chopped away the stone that was not David. The Japanese word shibumi is used to describe refined simplicity, beauty, elegance, and quiet perfection. Shibumi looks simple but it takes time and effort to reach this state – understated effortless beauty.

Many parents try to trick their children by giving their children five pencils instead of one package. We can cut a sandwich in four pieces and somehow it seems more to eat than one sandwich. In a similar way, architects can create ‘more’ space by diving the room into discrete areas. This can be down by lowering the ceiling height in two places. This creates the perception of three separate and distinct areas.

It may not be difficult to make simple cuts and take things away – such as cutting the costs. Yet it is a skill to see the missing pieces and to consider what can be achieved by stopping to add things. Reflecting over what you can stop adding, take away to stop doing is not as easy as it may sound. Streamlining the thinking and challenging yourself to end doing things that are not necessary may in the end achieve a higher end result.

Complicating things is easy, it is also easy to avoid reading, and exploring things that we consider complicated. Research in a subject such as biology is often empirical but there is naturally on underlying theoretical work that is used to generate predictions. Despite this, the theoretical framework is often ignored. Papers using a higher density of equations are often not cited. Putting the equations in the appendix instead of in the paper makes it ‘easier’ to read and the number of papers citing the paper increases. A simple taking away, of the equations increases the chances that the paper will be read and cited.

Photo: “Abstract Empty Room” by sumetho

The Thinking Habits of Steve Jobs

In Walter Isaacson´s biography Steve Jobs  emerges as a nasty, selfish, and ruthless man. Fortunately, he applied his talents to making computers and did not engage in criminal activities.

Although, Steve Jobs  thoroughly studied Buddhism and meditated, there is little evidence of an inner peace of mind or compassion with other humans. He is the epitome of a genius who, because he thinks much faster and better than his employees, fell into the trap of arrogance and power play.

Fanatic, extremist, narcissistic and obsessive, not a man to have in your enterprise, let alone in your football team.

It has been the merit of Apple’s shareholders that they have managed to make a distinction between the man’s behaviour and his ideas about how computers might look like. They assigned a kind of reversed body-guard to prevent employees from being attacked too harshly.

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 a main criterion to select employees. Jobs was convinced that working with B-team players would end up with having lots of C-level players. A-Team players loved to be challenged by other A-team players.

Another  habit of Jobs was to visualise his ideas on a whiteboard. He encouraged critical thinking, but required at the same time joint efforts to overcome negative points in a design.

A key concept in the thinking about the design of computers has been Simplicity.  Jobs believed that the design of hardware, software and form should be designed integrally.  Not simply  produced to certain specifications, but as a piece of art that deliver several values. In order to do that Jobs focused to one issue at the time, determining what would be the key quality of the function delivered, removing without hesitation any unnecessary feature or complexity.

Jobs trusted his intuition on what a good design would be, and never let marketing surveys decide what to do. In all his decision he was led by the desire to deliver an excellent product that would change the world. Profits,costs or time were never of guidance when making decisions.

Ignoring general accepted impossibilities, A-team playing, Visualising ideas, overcoming negative points, designing for Simplicity, delivering Values, Focus and using Intuition are all subjects we will cover in our forthcoming book.

For a different view on Steve Jobs see the video below.