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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. For innovation, these conclusions are always about the human experience, and of this, they are usually about empowerment. In his book My Life and Work, Henry Ford expressed his famous argument — his innovation — for the Model T in these words:
“I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one — and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
Ford’s thinking can be readily expressed as an if-then statement. If I “build a car for the great multitude,” etc., then “no man making a good salary will be unable to own one — and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
If innovations are arguments and can be expressed as if-then statements, what are the “ifs” and the “thens”? “Ifs” are always propositions. But importantly, they are often inventions. Xerox’s GUI and Ford’s Model T were both inventions. But they would not achieve the stature of innovations — they would just be gadgets — unless they led to the empowerment of humans.
The “thens” are empowerment. They are what drive demand. But this is the difficult part of innovation. The “thens” are difficult, at times extremely difficult, to put into words. They are the “get it” in Steve Jobs’ famous statement to Fortune magazine in 1998: “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. … It’s about the people you have, how you’re led and how much you get it.”
How can a company “get it”? The only way is to hang out with people obsessed with some conclusion about empowering the human experience. To understand early the empowerment that personal computing represented, one would have had to hang out with the members of the Homebrew Computer Club, which spawned Apple Inc. along with about 26 other companies. Similarly, to understand what the empowerment of the automobile would mean, one would have had to hang out with those who made up the inner circle of the early Detroit auto industry. To “get it” means having both the staunchness and the humility to join the dialogue and contribute something — hopefully, an original argument — to the debate; and, if a company cannot contribute even a flawed, or rough, but original argument to the debate, then it can never “get it.”
A company has to do more than look for applications of its technology, acquire technology or just make knock-offs. It has to own a paradigm — a conclusion to an innovation argument. Every business must understand how what it is doing empowers humans. This, plus operational excellence, can make a company almost unstoppable.