Forget the buzzword, what is true innovation? How should it be used and how does it affect our everyday lives? Harvey Briggs takes a critical look at how the concept of innovation is used today, and what it should be.

In my travels and in my work I hear the word “innovation” thrown around a lot these days. Everybody’s talking about it. You can’t open a business magazine without reading an article featuring it. And, of course there are thousands of “experts” like myself making a pretty good living peddling their particular brand of it.

“Innovation” today is much like “Branding” was in the ‘90s; greatly overused and highly misunderstood. It’s the new buzzword and its ubiquity is putting the entire concept of innovation in serious jeopardy.

Putting temperature sensitive ink on your labels so you know when your beer is cold is not innovation.

Adding Buffalo mozzarella to your frozen pizza and calling it “Artisan” is not innovation.

Installing a voice-activated, web-enabled, Google-powered infotainment center in your minivan is not innovation.

You may be asking, “But why? They’re new. They’re necessary for business growth. They bring new energy to our brands, and certainly if we didn’t do them we’d fall behind our competition.”


These are all things that need to be done on an ongoing basis to make sure our products stay competitive. But these are incremental improvements, logical extensions of business and products that already exist. They’re new. They’re novel. In some cases they’re interesting. They’re just not innovations.

For now let’s call these incremental improvements, “advancements.”

So what is “innovation?”

Innovation is big. Innovation creates new markets. Innovation attracts new customers. Innovation changes companies, industries, communities, but most of all it changes minds.

True innovation doesn’t meet a need; it creates it.

Think about it.

No one needed to carry an endless catalog of songs in their shirt pocket until Apple invented the entire ecosystem that includes iTunes and the iPod.

Very few people needed to have their packages delivered overnight until Fred Smith built Federal Express.

Nobody needed to connect with every random person from their past, then Facebook came along and 800,000,000 people jumped on board.

Innovation isn’t just about making things better. It’s about changing things for the better. Innovation creates new revenue streams, makes institutions obsolete, fundamentally shifts the way we look at the world.

Today, the United States Postal Service is in turmoil because of innovations like Federal Express, email and Facebook.

When I was a kid and wanted to find a phone number, I looked it up in the book that was provided by the phone company. A book that generated significant revenues thanks to the Yellow Pages in the back. Today, I Google it and the “phone company” struggles to adapt.

Fifteen years ago, new music artists were the product of record company A&R men. They were groomed, managed and promoted on local radio until a CD hit the shelves of a music store in the mall. iTunes has innovated that entire model nearly out of existence.

If your project doesn’t fundamentally change the way you think about your category and your business, it may be necessary, it’s probably important, but it’s not innovation.

Creating need

The key component missing from most innovation programs is arguably the most important: Vision.

Without vision, there is no Federal Express.

Without vision, there is no Apple.

Without vision, there is no Facebook.

Vision is the ability to see the world as it could be and create a path to that future. And it is rare.

Most corporate innovation fails because the only vision presented to the team is financial; sales and profit numbers that must be met as a result of this initiative. Unless you or your leaders can establish a vision of how the world will be changed, how consumers’ lives will be improve, how competitors will be disrupted as a result of your innovation, you’re wasting time and money.

Don’t worry about the vision being complete or ultimately accurate. Did Mark Zuckerberg really see nearly a billion people sharing trillions of posts, messages, video and “lolcat” pictures when he first put together The Facebook as a way for Harvard students to connect? Probably not.

The key is to establish a vision and be ready to adapt. It’s a starting point that will undoubtedly change as the landscape shifts. Competitors will react. Consumers who initially reject your abstract vision will adopt it if it truly improves their lives.

The four components of innovation

Vision. Invention. Adoption. Disruption.

As I’ve already stated, true innovation begins with vision. But without action, vision is meaningless. That leads us to Invention.

Invention is the idea, technology or application or product that makes the vision possible. It may be as simple as a line of chemically treated non-woven disposable cloths attached to permanent handles as was the case with Swiffer. It may be as complex as a series of algorithms developed to help identify the preferences of shoppers to offer them more relevant merchandise and deals as was the case with Amazon. Without invention, a unique and hopefully patentable way to take your idea to market, your advantage created by the vision will be short lived.

Adoption is the process of seeding the innovation into the marketplace. When Swiffer was being tested, most consumers rejected the idea as being unnecessary – their brooms, vacuums and mops worked just fine, thank you very much – and wasteful. But in actual use, the product was so convenient and cleaned so effectively, it eventually won them over.

Disruption is the result of innovation. It’s the havoc your vision creates among your competitors, channel and even users. Apple destroyed a whole category of retailers as iTunes became more and more popular. Just try to find a record store in a mall today.

Innovation isn’t everyday

We should always be striving to improve our products, our businesses, our lives, but let’s save innovation as a descriptor for the really big things; for the ground-breaking, earth-shattering, company-saving missions that require more than just adding a few skus to the range.

Let’s keep innovation special.

About the author:

Harvey has spent over 25 years creating both award-winning communications and new products for such brands as Chevrolet, Pepsi, Kraft, Kimberly Clark, Mercury Marine and many others. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan where he prepared for this modern world by studying Latin. Harvey served on the Board of Directors of the Product Development and Management Association and has spoken on the subjects of branding, advertising creativity, and innovation at conferences across the country. Harvey is the founder and Director of Disruption of OBX Thinking, a product innovation and marketing firm in the US.