You must have heard the legend about how Newton discovered gravity: one fine day he observed an apple drop from a tree and wondered what made it fall from a state of rest. Why would it move at all? It was a eureka moment that led to the recognition of a phenomenon, a force, later named gravity. 

While this is a story most of us know, have you ever noticed that Newton did not make or invent the apple that fell from the tree, or the force that made the apple fall? What he did was connect the dots through observation and contemplation, and later, experimentation, coming to understand and explain the concept of gravity and its laws. 

Newton, recognised as one of the greatest scientists in history, is also credited with inventing the first practical reflecting telescope. But while he was an inventor, was he an innovator? The two terms are not interchangeable. And while everyone talks about innovation, very few understand what it actually means.

Let’s start with the basics.

Creative work, invention and innovation

A creative work is an output that  is “novel and appropriate” – new, useful and relevant (Amabile, 2012). It may be intangible, such as an idea, or tangible, as with a product. It is worth noting that creativity – the ability or a process that leads to creative work – can be classified into two types:

Big C creativity: Creation of something novel that has value and relevance, and is essentially a breakthrough that transforms a domain – such as Newton’s telescope, the internet, or a work for which you might receive a Nobel prize one day.

Little c creativity: Creativity that results in something new and of value but which is not a breakthrough. Examples: the new recipes you invent, a new tune you compose, or an improved product – say, a new Ford model.

While invention is related to Big C (creation of something new or unique), innovation may be related to Big C or little c. The major difference lies in the fact that for a creative work to be termed an innovation, it must create an output that can be commercialised or converted into a product or service people demand and pay for, resulting in profit, widespread impact, or both (Kahn, 2018).

While creativity leads to both invention and innovation, innovation is more about implementation of ideas to generate returns. Many inventions remain in research labs for reasons that range from not being technically feasible to being too costly – and some because while there might be a gap in the market, there is no market in the gap. So now you understand why I mentioned that though Newton was an inventor, by Kahn’s definition he was not an innovator, as his telescope, due to difficulty in its construction, was not widely adopted.

It’s easy to see why Apple Inc, which combines new technologies and ideas to create and take to market objects of value for which consumers pay handsomely, is known for innovation.  

Successful innovation entails more than creating a new product or service; it requires the product or service to be made accessible so that can be adopted by consumers to generate returns, or in the case of a nonprofit organisation, permit as many people as possible to benefit from what it provides. 

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Kahn (2018) classifies innovation into three categories: innovation as an outcome, innovation as a process, and innovation as a mindset,

Innovation as an outcome

This refers to novel, useful results or outputs generated because of innovation efforts. Vuity, eyedrops that form liquid lenses within 15 minutes of application to correct blurred vision, is a good example of product innovation – a tangible, innovative output.

Uber, when it was launched, was a service innovation that changed the way taxis operate.

BMW engineered process innovation when it collaborated with Epic Games to create a virtual reality-based platform to design and “experience” its cars. 

When an organisation changes two or more of these aspects of its operation, the result is referred to as business model innovation (Gassman et al, 2017):

  • Who – the customers it targets;
  • What – new is on offer to customers;
  • How – the processes, activities, resources and capabilities are organised to deliver value; and 
  • Value – how revenue is created.

Netflix, which employed technology, a key resource, to deliver content effectively and changed the rent-a-video business into a subscription-based online service permitting customers to view more than one piece of content in exchange for a standardised, regular fee, provides a good example of this. 

Supply chain innovation refers to innovation in an interconnected system through which products or services are sourced, produced and delivered – for example, precision drone-based delivery of medical supplies to remote areas, or of purchases to homes. 

Organisational innovation is evident when resources and assets are reorganised to achieve a specific objective. Samsung, for example, has geared its design centres to encourage innovation and provide employees with a safe, hierarchy-free space in which to collaborate.

Innovation as a process

While we have discussed innovation from the perspective of its outcomes, we must not forget that it results from an innovation-oriented process. The stages in this process are often interconnected, usually starting with the discovery of an opportunity to innovate (the stimulus), accompanied by the development of a design or response to the opportunity identified, and commercialisation and delivery of the conceived innovation. So while what we want is innovation, what we are doing to get there is also innovation.

Innovation as a mindset

Individual and organisational outlook play a great role in innovation. The kind of mindset needed can be nurtured by making innovation a valued habit, spurring it by motivating, facilitating and supporting innovation.

Happy learning!

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References

Amabile, T.M. (2012). Big C, Little C, Howard, and Me: Approaches to Understanding Creativity [working paper]. 

Gassman, O., Frankenberger,  K., & Csik, M. (2017). The St. Gallen Business Model Navigator [working paper]. 

Kahn, K.B. (2018). Understanding innovation. Business Horizons, 61, 453-560.

Thompson, H. & Havern, S. (nd). The history of gravity.

Dr Shaista Fatima
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PhD, MBA Senior Lecturer | Regenesys Business School Dr Shaista, who holds a PhD in Management from Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology in Allahabad, teaches creative thinking, innovation and design thinking at Regenesys. Her doctoral research examined the variables of creativity, emotional intelligence and organisational culture. She believes both in holistic development of students and continuous learning, and has had several research papers published.

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PhD, MBA Senior Lecturer | Regenesys Business School Dr Shaista, who holds a PhD in Management from Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology in Allahabad, teaches creative thinking, innovation and design thinking at Regenesys. Her doctoral research examined the variables of creativity, emotional intelligence and organisational culture. She believes both in holistic development of students and continuous learning, and has had several research papers published.

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