The Wrong Way to Think About Innovation

The Wrong Way to Think About Innovation

How do you know if something is innovative? Is it a breakthrough idea that takes the world by storm? Unfortunately, it is a common misconception that innovations have to be transformational. It is easy to see something groundbreaking as innovative but that should not define the entire realm of possible innovations.

In a previous post, I defined innovation in two ways:

  • a simplistic definition of "A novel creation that produces value"
  • a richer definition of "Innovation is the art of applying creative ingenuity to either solving business problems or creating material value through a product, service or experience"

I am returning to these definitions because they are critical to understanding that innovations can be of any size and shape as long as they are "novel" and "produce value". In another earlier post, I talked about different avenues of innovation. I explained that innovation can come from anyone, in any area of your organization, and is not limited to just new products. We all have the ability to innovate and can do so across multiple Avenues of Innovation:

Experience - Create innovation through each encounter with a customer
Offering - Create innovation through a product or service
Process - Create innovation through external and internal processes
Business - Create innovation in the structure of the organization or its relationships

Even if we are looking across all Avenues of Innovation but only looking for transformational items, we will miss out on some amazing opportunities. By expanding our thinking beyond the spectacular to also include the incremental, you are able to open up to a much larger set of possible innovations. The three Types of Innovation cover the spectrum of possible innovations from Core to Extending to Transformational.


Core innovations tend to be either incremental changes to existing products or incremental inroads to new markets. These innovations are the most often overlooked because they tend to come from the ground-up and won't make the front of the Wall Street Journal. But Core innovations are the lifeblood of a strong organization. These ideas are the ones that create "stickiness" in customers (internal & external) and also enable future innovations.


Extending innovations leverage what the company already does well into a new space. The goal here is to take advantage of areas of excellence in your organization and see how you can reach into other markets or, in the case of internal innovation, into other divisions or organizations. To succeed with Extending innovations, you need to step outside of the day to day and look for similar problems or challenges in other domains.


Transformational innovations are all about "new". Either new offers, new businesses, new processes, or new experiences. While these are the easiest to identify, they are often the hardest to create. Many transformational innovations are obvious after the fact. The real challenge is in identifying unmet and unarticulated needs and designing solutions that will fulfill those needs.

As you think about your organization in light of these Types of Innovation, you will likely start identifying items you are working on that can be considered innovative. To help identify these items, go back to the core definition and look for novel items that produce value. These can be small tweaks to something that already exists or could be a completely new idea that solves some larger challenge.

As you evaluate ideas, keep in mind that innovation is relative. What is innovative in your organization may or may not be innovative in another one. All of us face different challenges and have different needs. As such, there is always room for innovative ways to improve our organizations. So make sure you don't limit your thinking to one Avenue or one Type of Innovation. Broaden your focus to cover all Avenues and Types.

If you want to see more about how these Types of Innovation fit into the larger discussion of Innovation, check out our eGuide to Intentional Innovation.

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