What does innovation actually mean?

The term ‘innovation’ is a complex one; what does it mean for a business to be innovative, and what are the best approaches to innovation? Naomi Morrow, Project Manager at Digital Catapult Centre North East & Tees Valley, shares her thoughts in this blog post.

Innovation seems to have become one of the latest hypes, often attached to scale-ups in the technology sector, but what does this word really mean? In my role as Project Manager for Digital Catapult Centre, North East & Tees Valley, I work alongside a range of businesses from scale-ups to larger corporates at varying stages of development and have repeatedly been faced with the word innovation.

Many people would struggle to pin down what innovation means, when you search the term online you are presented with a myriad of companies who have all been associated with being innovative. The likes of Uber, Tesla and Amazon have been associated with this current buzzword, but why? They have disrupted the market with their technologies, from; creating an app where you can be in a taxi in minutes wherever you are, to being able to order almost anything online and have it delivered to you by drone that same day.

But whose job is it to innovate? It is becoming more and more commonplace for someone within a company to have the responsibility of innovation, especially within large corporate organisations. Many of us have seen roles such as “Innovation Director” emerging. On the surface it’s great that companies are taking innovation seriously enough to create a position, or in some cases an entire department dedicated to it.

However, it isn’t enough to create a role or a department; there is some serious ground work to be done, to firstly understand what the company has previously achieved, and what future approach needs to be put in place in order to stay ahead of the curve. This is a key part of the problem when we discuss innovation and try to define it, it is very specific to an organisation and there is no “one size fits all approach”, which is what innovation is supposed to be, right?

The dictionary describes innovation as: “the action or process of innovating” which doesn’t help visualise the practical application of how businesses do it. However, by breaking down what these successful companies do, makes the term more applicable. All of the companies mentioned above have gained commercial success by being original and inventive in their ideas; they each see an opportunity in the market (such as the need for a sustainable driving solution), develop their idea, test it, and then take a risk by introducing it to market. Businesses, which have been pinned as innovative, create new, original ideas instead of copying other company models.

Can something be innovative even if it already exists, but is implemented in a different way or circumstance?

Can something be innovative even if it already exists, but is implemented in a different way?

Could an important element for being innovative, therefore be invention? Can something be innovative if it already exists, but is implemented in a different way or circumstance? Take Thomas Cook; it is consistently evolving the way people buy holidays, from visiting a brick and mortar shop, to online and most recently by introducing “Try before you fly” experience with VR headsets. If a typically old fashioned company suddenly apply a change that has significant benefits, going by the dictionary definition, is that innovation, even if it is not brand new?

As mentioned earlier, another factor that makes innovation a complicated process is that it involves an element of risk. Yes, there are ways of estimating and measuring return on investment, but it is never completely reliable. However, we cannot avoid innovation due to risk; this in itself is risky. (Anybody remember Blockbuster?) Humans have always innovated in one way or the other, from the Egyptians building the pyramids, to the Romans inventing roads and toilets, and if we (ourselves or companies) don’t push forward, someone else will, leaving us behind.

I often hear that companies have an abundance of ideas, but no route to market or no understanding of how to take their concept and turn it into a commercial success. It is also often the case that individuals within organisations might have a way in which to make their role easier, which often doesn’t get shared with senior management and therefore isn’t considered as innovation.  I think companies who have a staff-led approach to new ideas, invention, risk and you guessed it, innovation, are on to a winner. What better way to find out how to improve something effectively than having the idea coming from those who work with the problem on a daily basis?

At Digital Catapult we focus on innovation by accelerating the practical application of digital technology. This is achieved in a number of different ways, from helping SMEs scale-up through programmes such as Augmentor, or by helping larger corporates be innovate by facilitating  Open Calls and Pit Stops allowing them to collaborate and create solutions with SMEs and scale-ups.

I believe we can all “innovate”, create new ideas or debate what is/is not innovative, however the most important part is being able to implement the innovation/invention/solution/idea (etc.) effectively so it has the desired outcome it was meant to achieve. Perhaps we need to focus on that element of innovation, rather than trying to define what it is to be innovative.

Naomi Morrow is Project Manager at Digital Catapult Centre North East & Tees Valley. You can follow them on Twitter @DigiCatNETV. Don’t forget to follow us too @DigiCatapult

Find out how Digital Catapult is leading the way in digital innovation with our upcoming Pit Stops.

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