Defining Innovation

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At a software company where I worked years ago our CEO called his product leads to a meeting. We sat at a long conference table, with hot drinks and ample pastries. A secretary appeared with flip charts and markers and the CEO announced, “We should be more innovative. Let’s be really creative for the rest of the day! Think new ideas! Anything goes – there are no limits.

Donald Farmer, Principal, TreeHive Strategy,

Donald will be presenting a workshop on 19 March at our Innovation, Business Change & Transformation Conference Europe 19-21 March 2018 on the following subject; Innovation and Design Strategy


We drank a lot of coffee. We ate the snacks. We discussed our product, but lost ourselves in a maze of disagreements, then abandoned the arguments with no clear choices. We made paper kites with the flip chart paper: our most creative activity of the day.

I am not embarrassed to share this story: many of you will have similar experiences. It often seems as if every business vaguely wishes to be innovative. Few people know how to start.

Although business schools and experts relentlessly urge innovation, companies still struggle with basics steps. We know an innovative idea when we see it, but that does not help us come up with one. There is much good advice about encouraging and marketing innovation: how to take concepts from the drawing board to production. But where do we start, when our drawing board is blank?

I know from experience that we must do more than order your team to “be creative” – no matter how much coffee you supply.

Over the years, I have had success guiding teams through the first steps of creative work. Forming a new idea is not an inexplicable mystery. But we must set out with an understanding of what innovation means for us.

Here’s a definition I like to start with …

Innovation is fresh work that emerges from a radically new understanding of the basic questions of our craft.

That’s it. Let’s see how it helps.

Firstly, innovation is fresh. Like cut flowers or newly-baked bread, new thinking can delight us. However, it quickly becomes old thinking. As even Microsoft has found, the nth company to create a smartphone invents nothing very new.

Innovation emerges. Those new ideas must push beyond mere incremental improvements. Mansukh Prajapati is one of my favourite contemporary inventors. A potter from Gujarat, he developed, not a new technology, but a wonderfully creative version of an existing product by putting together old and new ideas. What emerged is the Mitticool fridge, made of clay, using water and evaporation to keep food cool.

And then there is our common understanding of a problem. Too often we work with assumptions about what works, or what is possible, without really challenging ourselves. Innovative teams and individuals consistently look for common assumptions and test them. What questions do they ask? The basic ones are truly simple, but rich in their implications. Who? Where? When? Why? How much?

For years, data analysis and reporting software required a complex architecture which only specialized IT teams could deploy, develop or manage. However some vendors, such as QlikTech, challenged the basic assumptions of who should be building solutions. They asked why business users could not develop analytic apps themselves rather than IT. From this challenge, a radically new category of tools emerged: self-service data discovery, now a significant part of the analytics and reporting market.

Similarly, mobile apps now disrupt every business category, unsettling traditional ideas of where people will be working. Mobile accounting software? There’s an app for that.

For myself – as an inveterate road warrior, living between hotels and Seat 7A – mobile apps have also changed when I do certain tasks. I no longer wait until I am back in the office to complete my expense returns.

Freeware, open source and cloud subscription services have really changed our ideas of how much we pay for licenses and products and the kind of licenses we buy. We may choose to subscribe to Software as a Service rather than buying an outright installable license.

You can test this for yourself. Consider your favourite innovative products and services. What basic questions – who, what, why, where, how much? – do these inventions confront?

Now, with this simple definition you can start to ask some questions of your own.

Gather your team. For sure, provide some tea and cakes. And start the conversation with those basic questions.

Who are our customers or our users today? What if we targeted a completely different market?

How much do people pay for our product or service? Could we make it significantly cheaper, or free? Could we sell it as an expensive luxury or premium item? How would a new price alter what we do?

Where do people use our service? When? Can we change that?

As you go through such basic questions, look out for the most dramatically different answers that come up in discussion. Allow any ideas time to circulate, even those that seem silly at first. You never know in advance which directions will be fruitful.

The strange thing about creativity like this is that it is not the answers that matter so much as the process of asking the questions.

You need to be patient with this process. Don’t push too hard for easy or obvious results. Sometimes you may abandon every idea that comes up in your innovation thinking. But that’s ok too, because innovation is inherently risky.

So I recommend trying this approach. Start with my simple definition and ask those basic, challenging questions. Perhaps you will indeed uncover new and exciting ideas. Maybe not at first. But at the very least you will return to your regular work with a more complete and deeper understanding of your current products and services. And you will have a shared sense of what innovation means to you all. And then, when that new, fresh idea emerges you will not miss the opportunity.

Donald Farmer is an internationally respected speaker and writer, with over 30 years’ experience in data management and analytics. His background is very diverse, having applied data analysis techniques in scenarios ranging from fish-farming to archaeology. He worked in award-winning start-ups in the UK and Iceland and spent 15 years at Microsoft and at Qlik leading teams designing and developing new enterprise capabilities in data integration, data mining, self-service analytics, and visualization. Donald is an advisor to globally diverse academic boards, government agencies, and investment funds and also advises several start-ups worldwide on data and innovation strategy.

Copyright Donald Farmer, Principal, TreeHive Strategy

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