Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Defining Innovation

Innovation, innovate, innovator, innovant, innovative, innovatory, renovate, novation, these are but a few forms of the central concept within innovation - nova. Nova is Latin but it originates from the Indo-European neuos. Neuos meant new or now. Nova was a word that referred to "a star that bursts upon the sight" according to Shipley in The Origins of English Words. In Origins, Partridge uses the phrase, "a temporarily new star". Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary goes one step further in defining nova - "A star that suddenly becomes thousands of times brighter and then gradually fades to its original intensity." This is of course true for innovations as well. Innovations have a life cycle.

Innovation has a prefix and a suffix. The prefix in- has its roots in the Indo-European word en. En meant in, within or into. My guess is that its use in innovation implies that what is shining comes from within. The suffix -ion is used to note action or condition. This may be the root of one of the confusions about the use of the word innovation. It refers to both result and the result's way of becoming, how it came into existence.

Roget's International Thesaurus provides a structure for words in the English language, a system of inter-linked concepts. The concepts for innovation that they list are change, departure, novelty and originality. All forms of innovation are change, result in change, or take advantage of change, and may be the result of change within the person or organization. Originality seems to me to refer to what we call breakthrough change. Novelty seems to refer to what I call distinctive change. And, departure seems to refer to incremental change.

Innovation and creativity are often confused, and probably for good reason. Creativity comes from the Indo-European root ker, a prolific root. Shipley lists seven major groups of words that come from ker taking seven and one half pages to describe. He states that creativity comes from he sixth group in which ker means to grow. The Greek word khorus comes from that root meaning youth. And, the Latin goddess of growth was Ceres. Derivatives in this root have the implication of “springing forth”. Cereal, increment, and creature also follow this root. Three of the other seven groups have related meanings – bend, move, turn around; cut, pluck, gather; and harm, destroy.

Picasso understood the later concept when he wrote, “Every act of creation is an act of destruction.” We grow physically only by the destruction of other living things (Joseph Campbell calls this the original sin.) We convert one form of living thing into another allowing us to grow.

Partridge leans heavily on the Latin root creare – to produce, cause to grow, to come into existence. He also points out that this same root leads through procreare to procreation, the physical acts of conception and birth, hence creature.

Dictionary definitions and common usage confuse the issue even more, especially in art, as a work of art is created – not only the idea but the implementation.

Another related concept is ingenuity. It come from the very prolific Indo-European root gn. This root goes right to the core issue, the generative. It has come to mean clever, original, inventive, and resourceful.

Shipley states that gn (or gen) has two meanings that are intertwined – to beget and to know. Words like generate, genitals, generation, gender, and pregnant have to do with begetting. Through the Greek, gn became gnosis, knowledge, and our congnition, prognosis, diagnosis. Through Latin we get ignore, ignorance. Through the Germanic gn became kn and ken from which we get kin that are the result of kindling, and of course knowledge.

Shipley writes, “The association of these two sets of meanings in the one root shows the early sense of their essential unity: knowledge is power; to know how; to produce; to ken, to kindle. Savoir pour prevoir pour pouvoir is the neat French wording: to know, to figure ahead, to function. One may speculate that the notion of ‘knowing,’ the self examination it involves, and the need for a word to name it arose in human consciousness at about the same time men grew aware of the tie between copulation and conception. (conception and conceive, in later Latin, took the same dual application, genital and mental) I think therefore I am. I know, therefore I can. Again from the French (Paul Claudel): Naitre, pour tout, c’est connaitre. Tout naissance est un connaissance: To be born is to come to know. All birth is wakening to knowledge.”

Information is perceived and judged by humans in four forms – noise, data, knowledge or wisdom. To extract data from noise requires human creativity. To interpret, synthesize, analyze, summarize, and otherwise give meaning to data, i.e. turn the data into something of value that is actionable, produces knowledge, a process that also requires creativity. Wisdom results for the creative assimilation of knowledge gained from years of experience gained personally and from others.

Innovation at its core is all about information, usually data or knowledge. And, we have four methods of innovating – discover, invent, adapt, and adopt. We can adopt an innovation in a new setting where it becomes new again. We can adapt an existing innovation into a new application. We can invent, which strictly means combining existing information to new ways. Or, we can discover new information through searching deliberately. Sometimes in our deliberate search we uncover information of importance to another innovation. Explorers discovered new lands and peoples, and in the process discovered much additional information.

Often the connation for creativity is the creation of something that never existed before. This is unfortunate because in reality all purposeful human creativity, and thus innovation, is based on existing information. At the time of the creation of the universe, by what ever model you ascribe, the information clock starting running and the information gets more complex with the passage of time. We build on the information that has been discovered, invented, adapted or adopted before us.

Now the exception to the above is an accident. In genetics, we have the fortunate, and sometimes unfortunate, circumstance that genetic accidents occur. If the genetic accident is favorable, it may get integrated into the information that generates that life, i.e. DNA, and hence gets propagated through generations. The same thing can happen with creativity and innovation.

This is the hundred monkey parable – a hundred monkeys in a room with keyboards, eventually something useful is typed. Even if you did this, it would still take a human to read everything until something useful was discovered. The information produced in this fashion looks like noise.

This is not a useful methodology for innovation, although some use it as an argument against funding innovation – it’s unpredictable both as to significance and timing. In most cases however, the observation about innovation is correct – its timing and significance is unpredictable. But this is not caused by the hundred monkeys’ random touches of a keyboard. It is in fact a consequence of the nature of nonequilibrium conditions in complex situations.

A classic example of a complex, nonequilibrium situation is an earthquake. The complex network of forces that give rise to an earthquake is not in equilibrium. We can know that there will in all likelihood be an earthquake, but we can’t predict when or how large it will be. We do know that the probability of a given magnitude of earthquake decreases with the square of the intensity. This inverse square law holds for a lot of complex situations where nonequilibrium exists. Does it hold for innovation? We don’t know.

The remaining concept in this essay on defining innovation is what the innovation results in. For years we’ve had product and process innovations. We’ve found it useful to consider procedure innovations as well. In our lexicon, procedure describes the way people interact with other people. Process describes the way people interact with things. And, product describes the way things interact with things.

In Novations: Strategies for Career Management, Gene Dalton and Paul Thompson, define novation in the following way: “The word ‘novation’ is a legal term with a long history in English and American jurisprudence. It is unfamiliar to most people outside the legal profession, but better than any other word in the English language; the word ‘novation’ describes the complex process that provides the key to understanding the way individual careers unfold in today's organizations. The dictionary defines the term as ‘ . . . the substitution of a new obligation or contract for an old one by the mutual agreement of all parties concerned.’ We found that changing relationships are critical in moving from one stage to the next. But to make such a move, individuals must renegotiate a new set of obligations and expectations with all those around them. Delicate as these mutual negotiations are, they are compounded by the need to make psychological shifts with new self perceptions, new self expectations, and adjustments to new pressures. Novations proceed with such seeming naturalness for some people that few people around them even take note of the changes. But the majority of professionals have a very different experience. They often feel stymied and frustrated in their careers. These are the ones who fail to understand and successfully carry out novations.”

While this may be a useful term for a very specific form of procedure innovation, I do not see it useful in general.

Another term that is in use is business concept or business model innovation. Gary Hamel, Leading the Revolution, doesn’t specifically define business concept innovation, but he does give us some of its characteristics. “The goal of business concept innovation is to introduce more strategic variety into an industry or competitive domain. When this happens, and when customers value that variety, the distribution of wealth-creating often shifts dramatically in favor of the innovator.” Later he writes, “Business concept innovation is meta-innovation, in that it changes the very basis for competition within an industry or domain.” Still later, “Business concept innovation starts from the premise that the only way to escape the squeeze of hyper competition, even temporarily is to build a business model so unlike what has come before that traditional competitors are left scrambling.”

To me a business concept innovation is a collection of product, process and procedure innovations with the right mix of incremental, distinctive and breakthrough change. If it is the right mix, i.e. the mix creates unusual value for the customer, then a shift of wealth occurs.

So if innovation creates value for customers, it can create wealth. And, this is the ultimate effect of innovation, especially if you consider wealth in its old context – the common weal – well-being, prosperity and happiness for society.

Paul Schumann

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