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What Is Innovation?

2013 August 18

Everywhere you go, people are talking about innovation. There are conferences and gurus, workshops and webinars, apostles and practitioners.

But what is it, really?  It’s hard to go about the practice of innovation when there is so much confusion about what innovation actually is.  Some have proposed frameworks (i.e. discovery/invention/innovation), but to be honest, I don’t find them particularly helpful.

It seems obvious to me that a common sense definition of innovation is that it is a process of finding novel solutions to important problems.  Unfortunately, in order to make innovation palatable to organizations, many have tried to narrow the definition to make it more purpose driven.  That’s getting it backwards, after all it is we that need to adapt.

A Question Concerning Technology

Okay, let’s start from the beginning.  Clearly, the reason that businesses are interested in innovation is that we are living in an increasingly technological world and, for any business to consistently earn a return, it needs to develop technology.

As Kevin Kelly points out in What Technology Wants, even the use of the word “technology” is relatively new, primarily dating back to the middle of the last century.  So it’s not something we have a lot of experience with, like operations or accounting.

Martin Heidegger was the first person to seriously tackle the issue in his classic 1949 essay, The Question Concerning Technology, where he argues that technology both involves uncovering (i.e. bringing forth) and enframing (i.e. putting in context of a particular use).

The definition is extremely insightful and useful, not least because we tend to think of technology (including things like legal concepts and business processes) as something we create rather than uncover.  As I pointed out in an earlier post about how technology evolves, we create technology by harnessing and then exploiting forces that already exist.

So, if we want to innovate by creating new technologies, we need to first discover things and then figure out how to put them to good use.

Penicillin vs. DNA

To see where the discussion of innovation often runs into trouble it’s helpful to look at two often cited discoveries:  That of penicillin and the structure of DNA.

Penicillin was discovered by accident when Alexander Fleming left a petri dish open and came back to find the bacteria had died.  He traced the phenomenon to a strange mold that we know know as the wonder drug, penicillin.

The structure of DNA, on the other hand, was no accident.  In fact, many were searching for it, including Linus Pauling, the greatest chemist of the day.  The answer, however, eluded everyone except for two relatively unknown researchers, James Watson and Francis Crick, who combined several novel approaches to solve the problem.

The difference is clear:  Both are discoveries and technologies, but only one is the product of innovation.  We learn little by studying the discovery of penicillin (except, of course to pay attention), but a great deal from how Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA.  They were, in a very real sense, the first open innovators.


One popular way to frame the innovation process is to break it down into discovery (new knowledge), invention (new technologies) and innovation (useful things like products and services).  However, it doesn’t take much thinking to realize that this isn’t very useful because it confuses work products with work processes.

For example, both penicillin and the discovery of DNA were both the products of discovery (and eventually, by Heidegger’s definition, became technologies), but in one the process was accidental and the other the process was innovative, combining new techniques in chemistry, biology and physics in ways no one had thought of before.

And that is a very crucial point.  It is absolutely senseless to argue what constitutes a commercial product or service (it is, after all, a matter of context rather than of quality), but finding novel solutions to important problems is a crucial component of modern business life.

The Innovation Management Matrix Revisited

To finish up, I’d like to return to an earlier discussion on Innovation Excellence about whether innovation needs a purpose by introducing a modified version of the Innovation Management Matrix that I published in Harvard Business Review.

Innovation Matrix w examples


Each of the four quadrants represents an area of innovation in that each requires finding novel solutions to important problems as well as the opportunity to create new products and services.  (If you doubt the importance of quantum teleportation, see my earlier article on the next digital paradigm).

By arbitrarily determining that Netflix and the iPod are innovations and the discovery of the structure DNA and quantum teleportation are not, we would be unnecessarily limiting ourselves and therefore missing opportunities.  After all, one man’s purpose is another man’s folly.

They do, however, require separate and distinct innovation processes and that’s where the discussion becomes important.  In order to manage innovation effectively, you need to focus on one set of processes or your organization will become hopelessly muddled.

However, you will still need to gain some competence in other quadrants or you will miss opportunities (as Apple is doing now).  Finding the right mix of research, partnering, mining the organization for disruptive ideas and engineering improvements is essential for every organization.

– Greg


18 Responses leave one →
  1. August 18, 2013

    Interesting you revisit the Innovation Matrix again. Need to get underneath the deeper meaning of this

  2. August 18, 2013

    I’m not really sure there is a deeper meaning. It’s simply meant to be a management and resource allocation tool. If you find a deeper meaning, though, I’d love to hear about it!

    Thanks Paul.

    – Greg

  3. August 18, 2013

    Actually it should! I think you clearly value this Matrix and I think it needs a much deeper Matrix revisited. for instance across your great posts much of what you suggest might be mapped within this matrix to illustrate what can lie underneath

    Each story you offer can be designated within this matrix so people reading can see the emerging value and begin to work within the Matrix itself

    Just a thought behind finding its deeper meaning

  4. Barry Rabkin permalink
    August 18, 2013

    Innovation is an area that I would like to research when (or if) I have more time. Regardless, I remain troubled by any person who states that innovation includes incremental improvements (of products or processes). To me, that is ducking the hard work of truly innovating or of wanting to be seen as part of “the next big topic” (i.e. innovation).

  5. August 18, 2013

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, Paul. But really, I mean for the matrix to help managers think less. Every firm needs to innovate and there are a variety of good approaches, so it helps to think about what kind of problem you want to solve in order to design your approach.

    For example, should you try to solve the problem in house? Should you partner? Should you look for an academic to help you or should you take an open approach, by way of a platform like Innocentive, creating an accelerator, an Open API, etc.

    These are the types of questions the matrix can help answer, simply by asking two questions: How well is the problem defined and how well is the domain defined?

    – Greg

  6. August 18, 2013


    It’s a good point and one that is made often. However, most of Apple products are incremental (i.e. sustaining) innovations and Apple is clearly an innovative company.

    The good thing about sustaining innovations is it’s possible to do a lot more of them, which magnifies the impact of the approach.

    – Greg

  7. Barry Rabkin permalink
    August 19, 2013

    This brings up some other issues – what makes an “innovative company” innovative; what is the frequency of true innovations (of products and/or services) that a company needs to be considered innovative? Why do we as a society believe that incremental improvements are innovative?

    For me, pure innovation is a black swan event… truely “wow” and more than not, disruptive.

  8. August 19, 2013


    As I mentioned in a comment above, this matrix has nothing to do with making a company (or a person for that matter), more innovative. It merely shows how to best channel innovative efforts, not how to improve their quality. That’s an important subject and one which I have addressed elsewhere, it’s just not the purpose of this particular framework.

    However, I do think the notion of innovation as a “black swan” event as problematic. That would imply that innovations are only successful one out of 200 times (i.e. beyond 3 standard deviations). Even VC’s expect at least 10% of their investments to pay off (i.e. about 1.5 standard deviations) and those are the most risky types of innovations.

    – Greg

  9. August 20, 2013

    Great post Greg…and some of the above comments I found interesting. I’ll venture to say that I think Apple’s launching of the iPod in 2001 and then the advent of social media (Friendster, 2002) has brought much more focus to the idea of innovation (what defines it, what it looks like, how valuable is it). I’m with you in that it is important to create clear understandable channels/explanations on what innovation is. Innovation creates value which didn’t previously exist and then it becomes sustainable if that value scales (which often is the endgame). Scaling can only when happen when the innovation (the new value) isn’t complicated/is clear in its offering to the potentially new audience.

    On many levels your matrix is a great tool for addressing the nuances in innovation.

  10. Kenny permalink
    August 20, 2013

    Good thoughts here Greg. As you have made changes to your Innovation Matrix over the last few months, it is getting closer to looking like something that I use here. I like the idea of “novel solutions” to problems, but extend the definition just a bit. I tend to frame innovation as “the transformative idea that makes tomorrow’s thinking different from today’s by unlocking value that was previously unseen”.

    If you would like to contact me offline, I would like to share some further thoughts with you. I have a few slide pictures for you that will not share easily here.


  11. August 20, 2013

    Thanks Rasul. I always love hearing what you think!

    – Greg

  12. August 20, 2013


    Thanks. Just for the record, I have not changed the matrix, just the examples I use inside the boxes.

    – Greg

  13. Kenny permalink
    August 20, 2013

    Ahhh…you are right…I had combined two HBR articles in my head instead of just yours. Apologies.

  14. August 20, 2013

    I agree with you that innovation has been misstated and misunderstood frequently.

    Well, Peter Drucker discussed a process of innovation in his Innovation and Entrepreneurship book, and identified creating new knowledge, a major challenge for innovation in a paper. I believe with the better understanding of how brain works, experiences of numerous new product failures, and successes of great innovators like Einstein, Edison, Newton, Galileo and Ford can teach us how to innovate better. I have understood that innovation is applied creativity. Where creativity is an idea, invention is making it once, and innovation is reproducing the invention. And excellence is mandatory for innovation to become successful. Thus, my innovation matrix is Excellence (X) vs. Innovation (Y). I thought I would share my understanding of innovation.

  15. August 21, 2013

    Thanks for sharing, Praveen. I agree that Innovation is applied creativity. I’m not sure about the distinction between invention and innovation. I think that innovation is more about problem solving than invention is, but generally I don’t see how parsing words really gets us anywhere.

    The main point I wanted to make is that innovation is about coming up with novel solutions to important problems. Therefore, defining problems is an essential part.

    – Greg

  16. September 26, 2016

    Umm, discovery, accidental or not, is not innovation. Developing new tools to aid discovery is. Figuring out what to do with your discovery is. Fleming figuring out what to do with that mold is innovative.

  17. September 26, 2016

    Well, that’s the point isn’t it? Fleming didn’t really figure out what to do with the mold. He published his paper and nobody paid attention for ten years. It was only when his paper was rediscovered by Florey and Chain that it became the miracle cure we know today.

    – Greg

  18. September 26, 2016

    If what you say is true, my point remains. However, Fleming published potential uses in his research on penicillin, stating it could be used as an injectable and topical antibiotic if it could be stabilzied. That is figuring out WHAT to do. The fact that he didn’t figure out HOW does not take away from his creativity or innovation.

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