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Innovation. A word that permeates boardrooms, management meetings, and the corridors of organizations worldwide. It is key to staying relevant, thriving amidst continuous disruptions, and driving long-term success. But what does innovation truly mean to your organization? How can you harness its potential and translate it into tangible outcomes?

Defining Innovation: Beyond Patents and Technology

When we talk about innovation, we often envision breakthrough technologies, revolutionary products, and disruptive startups. While these are undoubtedly elements of innovation, they do not encompass its full scope. In truth, most organizations do not need to create “breakthrough” innovation. They don’t need to invent new technology or business models.

In order to find the benefit of innovation, it’s necessary to challenge common definitions and adopt a broader perspective.

At its core, innovation is a mindset: one of creativity and exploration, driven by a need to find better ways of doing things and create new value. It is this desire for continuous improvement and exploration which creates new opportunities to propel organizations forward. Innovation is not simply about the number of patents or the presence of technology. It creates something new, a novel way of solving problems and addressing people’s needs.

Innovation is a mindset: one of creativity and exploration, driven by a need to find better ways of doing things and create new value.

An Innovation mindset tackles uncertainty wherever it exists. This can result in combining existing processes to make a system more efficient. It might reuse existing technologies in new and creative ways. An innovation mindset might improve customer service or delivery times, streamline production, or find novel markets to pursue. In essence, an innovation mindset belongs everywhere and can be proven beneficial anywhere. The critical factor is solving problems in new or improved ways, be it through technology or other avenues.

Aligning Innovation with Desired Outcomes

To define innovation effectively, organizations must align it with their desired outcomes. Innovation is not an end in itself, but a means to achieve specific objectives. These objectives can vary from increasing efficiency, reducing costs, serving customers better to generating new revenue, opening up new markets, attracting or inspiring talent and addressing societal and environmental challenges. By aligning innovation with desired outcomes, organizations can focus their efforts and measure progress and success accurately.

What are the priorities for the organization over the next 1 to 5 years? What are the gaps between where you are now and where you hope to be? Gaps represent uncertainty. Innovation is one way to close the gaps.

Understanding Organizational DNA and Identifying Needs

To define innovation for an organization, it’s helpful if leaders understand their organization’s DNA. What was the founding ethos, culture, and core values that shaped the organization’s beginning? By grasping this foundation, leaders can align innovation initiatives with the organization’s capabilities, essence, and purpose. It helps the understanding of the needs that the organization has historically been committed to. It helps define guardrails, outside of which, the organization lacks the experience and expertise required to create new value.

Exploring Emerging Technologies and Trends

Innovation thrives on the exploration of emerging technologies and trends relevant to needs the organization currently addresses. Organizations must actively seek out technology advancements that can improve their ability to meet customer needs. This involves researching startups and tracking technological developments. Additionally, by understanding demographic, economic, and environmental trends, organizations can find opportunities for new populations that will have the needs. Needs don’t typically change. Who has the needs does.

Defining Innovation: Guiding Questions for Organizations

To define innovation for their organizations, leaders can reflect on this set of guiding questions:

1. What are the organization’s priorities over the next 1-5 years? Think markets, revenue, customer satisfaction, operational efficiency, costs, employee engagement, brand awareness, etc.

2. What needs do you currently serve and how? What problems are you solving and what aspirations are you furthering? How do your products help your customers? Where are the gaps between your current state and desired outcomes? Analyze your organization’s existing capabilities, processes, and products. What are the roles of specific organizational functions in closing the gaps? Think M&A, product development, sales, marketing, new market development, IT, HR, and so on. Where does uncertainty exist in the plan for these functions to close the gaps? In other words, what are the “unknowns” in terms of a function meeting its obligations?

3. What is our organizational DNA? Examine the core values, culture, and purpose that define your organization. Establish guardrails leveraging company DNA. Where are you willing and able to play? Based on your experience and expertise, do you “deserve to win” within a specific opportunity?

4. What emerging technologies and trends will change the markets we play in?? Keep a pulse on technological advancements and market trends that are relevant to your industry. Explore how these developments can be leveraged to improve your products, services, and customer experience.

5. Thinking broadly of your organization’s priorities, DNA, and how needs are evolving, you might define innovation for your organization as some combination of the following: inventing new technology to address specific needs, repurposing resources to address changing needs, improving existing technology or products, expanding into new markets by geography, segment, category, or M&A.

Innovation is not an end in itself but a means to achieve specific objectives.

Innovation is a powerful force that can drive organizations forward, enabling them to adapt, thrive, and make a meaningful impact in the world. But it is not a one-size-fits-all concept. Every organization must define innovation within its unique context and aspirations. Understanding the multi-faceted nature of innovation can provide a framework for organizations to define and pursue innovation in a purposeful and strategic manner. By defining innovation beyond mere technology and patents, and embracing an innovation mindset everywhere, organizations can embrace a broader perspective that encompasses problem-solving and value creation. Aligning an innovation mindset with strategic priorities unleashes creativity and exploration. Exploration increases the efficiency of execution.