What is innovation?

What is innovation?

What is innovation?

Innovation is a current buzzword. Put it in the title of a book and it is sure to sell; include it in the description of a university course and you will be overwhelmed with applicants. Peter Wilton of Berkeley says innovation is an organisation’s willingness to challenge its assumptions. As good a description as this undoubtedly is I think the concept goes further. Innovation is creativity in action. It is understanding the potential of relationships.

These are not just personal relationships, though those come into it, but the associations that constitute thinking. Thinking is simply relating one observation or experience to another. There are many reasons for doing this but they are not the process. The process is one of relating. In a broad, philosophical sense life is all about relating.

At its simplest creative relationships are between need and resource. I am hungry and so need food. I see a carrot and know that it can help to satisfy my hunger. I take the carrot and eat it. As the human brain learns to grasp more difficult concepts and as human society gets more complex, ‘need’ becomes a relative term. You don’t ‘need’ – in the survival sense of the word – the 1 million apps available for your mobile phone. But with a target of more exciting, more challenging living you do ‘need’ things you don’t yet know about.

Understanding the relationship between creativity and innovation is vital if your organisation is to be in the vanguard of development. The mouse learns about the mousetrap the hard way because it cannot figure out why someone should be offering free cheese. If the mouse had learnt that there is no such thing as a free cheese it would stop and question an offering that appeared to be – and, in fact, was – too good to be true. Innovation is not free cheese.

Nor is it about pie in the sky. It is practical. Following a nasty accident with an agricultural implement I worked briefly during recovery for a plastics factory. Their most demanding job was to attach RAF rangefinder compass panels to wooden bases. The fact that plastic was volatile and wood less than stable had apparently escaped the notice of the Royal Air Force procurement department in 1950. To add to these inherent shortcomings, the glue that bound the one to the other was slow setting, allowing for movement after gluing.

The absence of hostilities rendered the subsequent totally inadequate product relatively harmless but the scope for disaster was clear. I mounted my motor-bike and sped to a better glue factory. Half a day’s work produced a product that stuck quickly and firmly. My little contribution to the defense of the realm was innovation. I had discovered the right glue. Innovation, you see, comes modestly as well as magnificently.

This is why an innovative business will encourage its employees at all levels to suggest improvements, better systems, more practical solutions. All these are innovative. When an air of innovation permeates a business it will expand to all departments. For this reason, all ideas are good, especially the draft ones. There is an old saying that the impossible takes a little longer…

In an atmosphere of innovation, it comes a little faster.