The definition of innovation

May 3. 1994 was a big day for me - I handed in my master thesis with the simple headline "Innovation". I studied Economics at the University of Aarhus, Denmark (cand. oecon) which is a fairly theoretical and abstract education, so when writing a thesis on innovation I of course had to introduce the topic by defining what innovation actually is. I had read dozens and dozens of books on the topic, but had never found a good, theoretical definition of innovation. So I came up with my own.

Why is that 25 year old thesis valid today, you would ask? Because, I still have not found a better way of defining innovation (including how the all encompassing Wikipedia talks about innovation), that makes sense to me. I have not closely followed the management and technology literature in the last couple of decades, so maybe someone has made the case for a better and easily understandable definition, but I haven't seen it, so let me briefly explain how I - still - view it.

Innovation is a continuum along three dimensions: degree of newness, degree of implementation and degree of success. Given what I have actually been doing professionally the last quarter of a century, I could write a couple of books on these dimensions and the underlying topic, but let me in short explain what I mean with each dimension.

Degree of newness: obviously, an innovation needs to have some newness. This doesn't mean that the more new, the more innovation per definition - that depends also on the outcome of the two other definitions, but obviously it can amplify the view of the overall degree of innovation. How to measure degree of newness? That's not for now :)

Degree of implementation: many misunderstand getting an idea with being innovative. Getting an idea is only having the potential to become an innovation, but ultimately an idea needs to be brought alive before it really is an innovation. The degree of implementation starts with an idea, but the actual manifestation needs to have happened before you move from potentially an innovation (lower innovation score) to an actual innovation (higher innovation score).

Degree of success: ultimately, ideas that are fully implemented are not necessarily innovations either. The world has seen plenty of ideas with full implementation, that was no success, e.g. the New Coca Cola (1985), the electric car company Better Place (2008) and Google+ (2011). You can measure innovation in many ways, e.g. money terms, saving lives, people's happiness, etc., and the more impact, the higher the innovation score obviously.

The key concept is, that innovation is a continuum, and this continuum is measured along all three dimensions. Innovation is not binary - just like innovation comes in many shapes and sizes, so does the degree of innovation that ultimately can be measured.

This line of thought still works for me, when I think about the concept of innovation - hope it can work for others as well.

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