Why Innovations Are Arguments

Too many executives confuse what an innovation is with what an innovation would do for them if they had one. The solution? Think of innovation as an if-then argument.

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Henry Ford’s argument for the Model T can be expressed
as an if-then statement.

Image courtesy of Ford Motor Company.

Attend almost any conference on innovation, and one will hear someone in the audience ask, “Yes, but how are you defining ‘innovation’?” Why is there no clear, shared meaning of “innovation”? I believe it is because most executives confuse what an innovation actually is with what an innovation would do for them if they had one. For example, most companies think of an “innovation” as something that wins a sale with a better solution, increases revenue or takes market share from a competitor. But those aren’t definitions of innovation. They’re outcomes executives would like to get from innovation.

The problem is a serious one, not the least because companies send engineers, “technology entrepreneurs” and “technology scouts” in search of innovations when a shared understanding of what they are looking for may not exist across the organization’s people and functions or between “scouts” and managers. More significantly, to “innovate” means to “regenerate” — and most companies decline or fail because they fail to regenerate.

I propose that all true innovations are arguments. By this I mean that all innovations are composed of three elements: a proposition and a conclusion linked by an inference. I further propose that this is not merely a convenient or workable definition that covers most instances of innovation. Far from it: Stating that innovations are arguments is not just stating a definition — it is an identity, an equality. Innovation = Argument.

Let me explain. When the late Steven Jobs went to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in December 1979 to kick around the lab to see what was up, he made an argument — an innovation. He stumbled on a proposition — the graphical user interface — and inferred that this interface would be the way that everyone would experience computing. Jobs later told Rolling Stone, “Within 10 minutes, it was obvious that every computer would work this way someday. You knew it with every bone in your body.” Steve Jobs was an innovator because he could make inferences between technology propositions and conclusions about human experience.

Arguments can always be expressed as if-then statements: If we agree to a proposition being true, sound or valid, then we can infer a conclusion.


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Comments (4)
This is a brilliant way to describe innovation.  I often talk about we're all stakeholders in a tacit dialogue about an evolving future. This makes the same ideas much more concrete and more about the actions the stakeholders are taking to bring that future into existence.

Very nice!
Dan Reus - Founder and Chief Instigator
I could not agree more. It reminds me of a recent paper I had published in my company. "Human Thinking Applied to Problem Solving"

The importance and impact of human thinking is immense. Thoughts converted to actions can result in outcomes that can carve destinies and create human history and legacy. Universally and always, there have been 7 questions that have engaged the human thought processes before and while problem solving and formulating strategies. There is also a taxonomy created around human thinking variations. They include terms such as big picture thinking, reflective thinking, analytical/critical thinking, action thinking, realistic thinking, creative thinking, focused and structured thinking, strategic thinking and so on. The volume of the taxonomy and the human thinking variations has always confused us with respect to right and relevant thinking. It was time to have a thinking framework—thinking sequence, structure and function (human thinking variations) and so I created one to help think thinking. The thinking framework helps you think, solve,strategize and innovate.

And yes, innovations are arguments--internal or external to us where we weigh options and think why, why not, what if etc.
Excellent post on INNOVATIONS and how to nourish them.
Dr.A.Jagadeesh  Nellore(AP),India
E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com
"How can a company “get it”? The only way is to hang out with people obsessed with some conclusion about empowering the human experience." -- YES! You "get it" (smile)... the obsession cannot/must not be about increasing profits but improving the human condition/experience. A paradigm shift is needed as you note. 

When I think innovation, I think a jazz ensemble and the improvisations that occur on stage. There is a critical mass of people who "hang out" together to create amazing music. When you put all these "like minded" people together, the clashing of ideas, the call-and-reponse (blues, jazz here but also verbal, conversational, brainstorming), the "argument" forges innovation. 

Bingo! You "get it"... now what?!