Innovation – defined once & for all

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Dr Bettina von Stamm is a leading Innovation Philosopher and Founder of the Innovation Leadership Forum. She spoke to Business Grapevine, and revealed why innovation is being misunderstood by businesses, and questioned whethercreativity is really enough to foster change.

 How would you define innovation?

From the mid 90s to 2010 I would have answered that question with  “innovation is a frame of mind” as I had come to the conclusion that innovation happens in the presence of certain values and behaviours. I still believe this to be true, and I felt that it was no longer enough. Since I embarked on my journey to “understand and enable innovation”, as I always describe it, innovation has become such a buzzword that it some times worries me.  Surely, innovation is the means to an end not the end itself. I also observed that there was a decidedly dark side to innovation: doing something because it is possible, not because it is necessary of brings about positive change.  This is why, since 2010, I have been using the following definition: Innovation is about choosing the path of change to create value.  Each word was chosen carefully: First of all, it is a choice, a conscious decision to seek change.  Anyone who has ever engaged in new years resolutions will be able to attest that changes, even if we want to, is not easy; it takes a lot of energy, conviction, courage and patience.  Secondly, innovation is not an endpoint, what ever is innovative today will be standard tomorrow and out of date the day after that; so innovation has to be an ongoing effort, a path with stops perhaps, but no end point. Thirdly, innovation is about change.  As I like to say, all innovation is change but not all change is innovation.  And Finally, value which comes back to the fact that innovation is means to an end, not the end in itself. Such value is not only monetary; it can be learning or reputation, and i feel increasingly strong about the fact that in today’s context any innovation should consider all three aspects of the triple bottom line: planet and people in addition to the customary profit. 


Why do you think business misunderstand innovation?

Perhaps I should counter with the question: how many do really make an effort to understand what it means?  In my experience innovation is a mantra in most organisations, yet when challenged why innovation is so important, and what exactly it means and is supposed to achieve may struggle. A lack of definition is often at the bottom of the misunderstanding. For some innovation is only the big, world moving change.  For some it is some small incremental change.  My understanding encompasses both whereby there is no absolute definition of ‘radical’ or ‘incremental’; in the end it is about how much change needs to be absorbed and what is important is to define different levels (incremental, radical, transformational) and types (product, service, process, business model, societal)  of innovation in the specific context and for the people who are supposed to innovate together. Unless such shared understanding is established people are likely to run off in different directions, leading to disagreement and frustration.


Why is creativity not enough to facilitate innovation?

Creativity is the starting point for innovation.  A draw full of ideas and concepts does not make a difference, it does not create any value. Only when we translate our ideas into action, make them reality do they have the potential to create value.

This also means that diversity is key to innovation. Firstly, we need diversity to question the status quo, then to come up with new ideas, more often than not by combining different bodies of knowledge, then we need a different skill set again for the next steps, to successfully develop and finally implement our creative idea. This does of course not mean that creativity is required only at the outset, creativity and an awareness of how and why we do what we do is beneficial for the entire duration of the process


What advice would you give these executives, or brands? 

[I am not quiet clear what executives you are referring to here?]

If I come across senior leaders who would like to make their organisations more innovative I first challenge them to reflect why they want innovation; then invite them to explore what kind of levels and types of innovation they want or need to succeed. Next step is to understand the implications of seeking certain types and levels of innovation.  If I want to pursue incremental innovation I need a different set-up from the one I need to succeed with radical innovation in terms of structures, processes, skills, decision criteria to name but a few. As a senior leader I need to understand these conditions – even though most likely I will feel much more comfortable with one than the other. In the end both incremental and radical innovation will be needed to secure long term success. Finding the right balance between different types and levels – which will depend on internal conditions (innovation ambition) and external conditions (rate and speed of innovation in the relevant context)  and creating a culture that embraces both operational excellence (incremental innovation) and innovation excellence (radical innovation) are two of the key challenges.

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