Is it innovation or just an improvement? Does it matter?

On the LinkedIn Front End of Innovation group, I saw this post:

Interesting (and heated) discussions @ Unleashing Innovation Summit in Amsterdam earlier in the month: Incremental innovation is NOT innovation – it’s just marketing. REAL innovation is breakthrough/transformational… Agree or not?

I’ve seen this debate before. Attempts to finally, once-and-for-all establish just where improvement ends and innovation begins. People end up with a Maginot Line that fails to defend the sanctity of innovation. Quick: Amazon 1-click purchasing…improvement or innovation?

Does it matter that we define innovation? I once collected a bunch of people’s definitions of innovation to celebrate the multiple ways people think about it. That was a nod to the different ways people think about it. It was divergence, not convergence.

But there are times people want a clearer line between innovation and improvement. Let’s see how some smart folks have articulated the difference.

Perspectives on defining innovation

Scott Berkun: Innovation is significant positive change. This is a high bar, and it should be. What does significant mean? I’d start with the invention of the light bulb, constitutional governments, wireless radio and maybe web browsers. Perhaps you could say significant is a 30% or more improvement in something, like the speed of an engine or the power of a battery. If you know the history of your profession you know the big positive changes people made over the last 50 years, giving you perspective on the scale of brilliance you need to have to be worthy of that word. (#)

Alan Lepofsky: Both innovation and improvement are important concepts, but unfortunately the two terms are often used interchangeably. Innovation reimagines an existing process or market, or creates a brand new one. Improvement enhances an existing process or market, but does not create disruption.  (#)

Chris AndrewsI think your point highlights something important: there’s a pretty fine line between business-as-usual product improvements and real innovation, and it’s important not to confuse the two. (#)

Jon Van Volkinburg: I don’t see innovation as something that merely creates value for a customer and/or for the provider. Expanding or adding a service, feature, or function is not innovation, and these things create value. These things are growth, novelty, and invention. They are great, necessary, and can lead to innovation if the environment and timing is right. If you want, I guess you can call it incremental innovation… but I wouldn’t, to me the term “incremental innovation” is an oxymoron. (#)

What if we actually settled this debate once and for all?

Assume for a moment that we, as a society, agree on what constitutes Innovation. Then what? What is the logical flow of events and decisions that follow such a conclusion?

The reality it that doesn’t matter what something is called ex post facto. It only matters what impact it has on the consumers of the improvation.

Innovation or improvement comic

Before seeking improvation:

  • Understand the problem you’re addressing (no easy task itself)
  • Develop a sense of the magnitude of what’s required (shave a few $1,000? develop a $1 billion market?)
  • Be prepared to follow through on the ideas generated at a level commensurate with their scale

Here, it is important to understand how you define what you’re seeking. And it doesn’t matter whether you call it an improvement or an innovation. Afterwards, after the idea has become real? Again, it doesn’t matter what anyone calls it. It’s about how well it addresses the job-to-be-done. Call it what you want.

You like to-may-to,
And I like to-mah-to…

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter, and I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.



About Hutch Carpenter
Chief Scientist Revolution Credit

4 Responses to Is it innovation or just an improvement? Does it matter?

  1. Scott Berkun says:

    Thanks for writing this. Part of the problem is the shortage of people willing to do some legwork and dig up what others have said about these issues.

    My fundamental point in my post was the people who do the real work, the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the risk takers, don’t care what it’s called. They just do it and care about the results.

    It’s the consultants, the journalists, and the authors, all prone to hype and confusing labels for the things being labeled, who obsess, debate and abuse these terms.

    It’s revealing to ask anyone who has these debates or uses these words: “What innovation have you made?” Often the answer is nothing, deflating whatever misplaced hubris they’ve been operating on in their arguments.

  2. Hello Hutch,

    I don’t think it matters. It’s confusing for most. I always tell companies, and people, that they should come up with their own definition.

    For me what matters is that it should have some intent, beyond just making it into Forbes list.

    For those of us who have done it, even though we didn’t set out to innovate, all that matters is making an impact; small of big. Any type of progress is important for innovators, and we also understand that there isn’t an “I’m there”, it is continuous and builds upon previous efforts.

    That’s why I see it more as a mindset, not a process that leads to an ending.



  3. Hutch, While working on my master’s thesis on creative leadership I researched numerous academic and practitioner definitions of innovation. I attempted to write the most succinct definition based on this research and came up with: “innovation is capturing value from an idea.” I like this because it can apply to anything and all innovation typologies.

    Like Scott and Jorge state, I don’t really think it matters in the end. That’s why I prefer a simple definition so everyone can move on to the really challenging work — figuring out how to take a promising idea and bring it to market.

    I actually try to avoid using the word innovation. In its noun form, it seems to invite definition and brings out the philosopher in folks. I prefer, innovate. The verb form invites action, not philosophy. I wrote a post about this you might enjoy:


  4. Pingback: Gmail offers surprising innovation lessons for the Fortune 500 | I'm Not Actually a Geek

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