Do You Understand Innovation?

18 February 2019

Michael Coates, Protostar Leadership

In today’s Innovation SuperNetwork blog, management consultant and innovation professor, Michael Coates, guides us through the fundamentals of innovation.

It is a shame that “innovation” does not rhyme with “love”, as singing “innovation is all around us” would certainly help to get over one of the key messages that organisations need to understand. This simple truth is rarely grasped, as so many people assume that innovation is about the creation of something new, and that only a particular type of person has that within them.

Why is invention confused with innovation?

The prime culprit is the confusion over the difference between invention  and innovation. Invention is the creation of something completely new, and yes, history has shown that prolific inventors have differed from most of us, and therefore, it is unlikely that many readers will go down in history as having invented something.  However, innovation is the process of creating, capturing and developing new ideas into new ways of working or creating value.

An innovation example will help.

Plastic was at some point invented (1907, Leo Hendrik Baekeland to be precise).  Plastic is basically a malleable chemical that hardens, and by itself is an interesting polymer.  The innovation came when someone realised that bottles, traditionally made of glass, could be made by blowing air into plastic. Chairs that had been made for hundreds of years from wood, metal and fabric, could also be formed using this new invention called plastic. The people who took the invention and found new ways of creating value from it, were the innovators.  The same applies to the silicon chip – completely useless to most of us, until someone finds a new use for it.

Innovation is not all about products

The second reason people do not see innovation all around them, is that they assume it is all about products, whereas innovation applies just as much to services (think Uber) and work processes (think about how you get your car tax). Uber did not invent a means of transporting people, they took existing processes, (drivers, phone app, GPS, online payment, online reviews) and created new value from them. The vehicle licensing people in Swansea did not invent online forms, online payment, monthly direct debits or license plate recognition, they just saw a means of using them to web enable a manual process – before you knew it, the tax disc was history (although I keep all of mine for posterity).

Just look out for innovation

While working from home recently, I awaited the arrival of a double-glazing salesman. If ever there was an industry that has stuck to tried and tested methods, it is that one.  If you have sat through the sales pitch, you will know it varies little from company to company. This time, there was a difference – he left within 5 minutes. What caused him to run was the fact that my wife is currently working abroad and would not be there for his sales talk. He rang his boss, from his expensive looking smart phone and was told to leave – no wife – no windows.  Flabbergasted that I was possibly the first person ever to try and persuade such a salesman to stay in my house, I stared in disbelief at his phone, which was no doubt equipped with many apps that could engage my wife via video, and gain her approval, signature and money. But that’s not how they work.

This was a great example of how utilising an existing technology into a manual or traditional work process, can mean new value is added, a new customer base can be tapped, you differentiate yourself from your competitors, and very importantly – you make a sale that would otherwise have been lost.

Now, possibly I have made it sound simple to spot such innovations, and to be fair that is part of my job, but with a few easily learned techniques, and being open to thinking differently, it can be learned by anyone. It is not rocket science.

So, was the space rocket an invention or an innovation?

About the Author

Michael Coates is Managing Director of Protostar Leadership Development  and a visiting Professor in innovation and change. Michael coaches and trains leaders around the world to be more effective and more innovative.

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