Removing the fluff around innovation

Principal Consultant Baiju Vaidya, from IMC’s Inclusive Growth team, explores what innovation actually means and how we can try and innovate ourselves.

Wednesday 15 August 2018, Private: Baiju Vaidya

This blog post forms part of a series centred around innovation and enterprise. Baiju was Deputy Team Leader of a unique UK Aid-funded programme, which transferred proven innovation from India and promoted innovation in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, to support the growth of local small and medium enterprises. Over a period of three years, the programme worked with almost 400 enterprises and supported 40 to launch cross-national joint ventures.

Over the past decade, the word ‘innovation’ has been increasingly used to describe initiatives in the private, public and third sectors. Does this imply that our ability, capacity or interest to innovate is newfound? Not at all – humans have innovated since the dawn of existence. In fact, the single biggest reason why humanity has progressed to the point we are at now is our drive to innovate.  

So, what does innovation actually mean?

There are all sorts of definitions which a simple Google search will offer, but in the interest of keeping things simple, it signifies doing something better. Invention, on the other hand, signifies doing something new. Of course, there is huge overlap and no hard and fast rule, but an example which illustrates this point is that of telephones. You might say that the first telephone was an invention, the first cellular telephone both an invention and an innovation, and the first smartphone an innovation.

The extent to which something is innovative is also not black and white – it largely depends on one’s frame of reference. If you are a farmer in western Europe, you are likely not to find agricultural mechanisation innovative. On the other hand, as a smallholder in rural Nepal, you are rather likely to think it is. This is a West to East example. Meanwhile, yoga was introduced to the West less than 40 years ago and only more recently has it become one of the biggest ‘innovations’ in self-help.

In the East, on the other hand, yoga has been popularised over centuries. What does this mean? It means that innovation needs context – in other words, for whom is it innovative and how. If terms like ‘best innovation’ or ‘most innovative’ are used without sufficient context, they lack credibility.

So, how might one innovate? Furthermore, how might one convince others (as well as themselves) that they are actually innovating? A relatively straightforward way is to refer back to the three-word description doing something better. Let’s take the individual words one at a time.

  1. Firstly, define what it is that exists at the moment. To do something better, the question is, better than what? It is important to articulate the status quo. There are a number of examples whereby one tries to innovate but actually doesn’t do something better than what’s already on offer. 3D TVs are a prime example. While 3D technology might be an innovation, it’s only arguable that 3D TVs are. To many viewers, 3D TVs didn’t give a better experience than their 2D counterparts, which is why their departure from the market was quieter than their arrival. The recent innovations in TVs have been more in terms of resolution, shape and materials.
  1. Next, we move onto the something. Importantly, this is not the innovation, but the expected outcome from implementing the innovation. Going back to our 3D TV example, the something was not introducing 3D TVs. Rather, it was providing the user with a more pleasurable domestic viewing experience than currently on offer. Articulating the something in detail is vital if you want to successfully innovate. Also important is trying to back up your assertions with as much evidence as possible – in this case, what tells me that viewers want 3D TVs for domestic viewing? This isn’t easy though, and evidence is a difficult idea with which to contend when trying to innovate, as you work with the mindset to disrupt the status quo. If you had asked the average person in the 1800s how they would like their travel improved (i.e. the evidence), they would have said faster horses, not automobiles. This touches upon a point frequently brought up when talking about innovation – failure. It must be accepted that if one is to try and innovate, and disrupt the status quo, they may fail. As long as one tries to fail ‘small’ and learn from it, it’s no bad thing.
  1. Finally, we get to the doing. This is what is commonly termed the innovation, but it is just the activity. Remember, it is only an innovation if it is doing something better. The question to ask yourself is how does this activity achieve the desired outcome, i.e. the something? Back to our 3D TVs, one might say that the 3D TV is not an innovation if the desired outcome was providing the consumer with a more pleasurable domestic viewing experience. They might say this because they themselves don’t like 3D TVs, whereas someone else who does like 3D TVs might say otherwise. You can see where this conversation begins to get futile. So, are 3D TVs actually innovative? Well, that depends on whether you like them. From a business perspective though, sales of 3D TVs did not match expectations and that implies that overall, they weren’t.

The final point begins to introduce the link between innovation and enterprise – this point will be expanded upon in the next blog post in this series, ‘Supporting smaller enterprises growth’.

Cover photo: Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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