The Game of Definitions

There are different opinions on the value of proper definition of terms. Some people consider definitions a prerequisite for any meaningful discussion, and I often agree with them; others view definitions as a barrier to creative thinking, and I often agree with them too. However, after reading hundreds of articles, blog posts and comments on the topic of innovation, I believe that the term “innovation” does need to be coherently defined. Innovation has become a buzzword, with inevitable dilution of its original meaning and unfortunate attempts, sometimes intentional, to use it to describe something innovation is not. A friend of mine, a Russian entrepreneur, for example, offered me this definition of innovation:

“Innovation is anything I can get funding for”

That’s why it was with great interest that I read a recent post by Eric Shaver, “The many definitions of innovation,” in which he presented 15 definitions of innovation collected from different sources. I strongly recommend to everyone to read Eric’s piece, but here, I’d like to give my rundown of his collection.

As it almost inevitably happens in any game of definitions, there will be attempts to reduce them to a short and memorable punchline. There are a couple of such punchlines in Eric’s piece:

“Innovation is creativity with a job to do”


“Innovation is change that creates a new dimension of performance”

One might argue that both lines were taken out of context (from speeches by John Emmerling and Peter Drucker, respectively), yet both seem to somewhat sacrifice clarity for the sake of brevity.

Then, there are definitions that reflect a popular trend, especially in the media, to equate innovation with ideation. Here is a classic example of such definition from Eric’s collection:

“Innovation…[is]…the development and intentional introduction of new and useful ideas by individuals, teams, and organizations…”

(from a 2009 article by Bledow et al. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology).

There is no question that ideation and innovation are related things, yet they’re not identical: ideation is a process of generating new ideas, while innovation is a process of generating new ideas and commercializing them. Consequently, when speaking about innovation, innovation practitioners always include a value component. Here is a definition of innovation from Eric’s collection characteristic of this approach:

“Innovation is the process that turns an idea into value for the customer and results in sustainable profit for the enterprise”

(from a 2006 book by Curt Carlson and Bill Wilmot “Innovation: The Five Discipliners for Creating What Customers Want”).

In a 2008 book “The Game-Changer,” A.G. Lafley and Ram Charan put the value component to the forefront of their definition:

“An innovation is the conversion of a new idea into revenues and profits”

Revenue and profits. You can’t be more explicit than that!

In the same category belongs my definition of innovation (also quoted by Eric):

“Innovation is an invention that has demonstrated its ability to create value”

Braden Kelley, a co-founder of Innovation Excellence, makes a great point by adding that innovation should not only create value; it should do it in a way that is superior to any other existing way of creating value. Here is Kelley’s definition of innovation:

“Innovation transforms the useful seeds of invention into widely adopted solutions valued above every existing alternative”

So, to summarize, I’d like to offer the following “composite” definition of innovation:

“Innovation is a novelty that has demonstrated its ability to create value in a way that is superior to every existing alternative”

And if this definition sounds too long, here is my punchline:


About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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3 Responses to The Game of Definitions

  1. Pingback: Are We Going Crazy about Using the Word “Innovation”? |

  2. Pingback: The Myth of “Unstructured” Innovation |

  3. Pingback: Are We Faking Innovation? |

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