December 10, 2023

What is innovation?

Author: Harold Jarche
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In writing almost 100 posts on innovation since 2007, it’s time to put the core observations together into a cohesive narrative. Here goes.

Innovation is fifteen different things to fifteen different people.

“An innovation is the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, workplace organisation or external relations.”OECD

The Learning Link

As Marina Gorbis concludes in The Nature of the Future, “much new value and innovation will move from commodity-or-market-based production to socialstructed creation.” Innovation today is people making connections. Innovation is dependent on learning in networks. Social learning is about getting things done in networks. It is a constant flow of listening, observing, doing, and sharing. Effective working in networks requires cooperation, meaning there is no fixed plan, structure, or direct feedback. Through social learning we can co-develop emergent practices. Social learning is how we move from transactions to relationships and foster knowledge mobilization.

Innovation is inextricably linked to both networks and learning.  Innovation is not so much about having ideas as it is about connecting and nurturing ideas. Tim Kastelle says that, “Innovation is the process of idea management.” Effective knowledge networks are composed of unique individuals working on common challenges, together for a discrete period of time before the network shifts its focus again. The network enables infinite combinations between unique nodes. For example, better connections enabled a high school student to create a better cancer diagnostic tool. Connected discoveries will be the hallmark of the network era.

The connection between innovation and learning is evident and we cannot be innovative unless we integrate learning into our work. It sounds easy, but it’s a major cultural change because it questions some common assumptions about work —

  1. A JOB can be described as a series of competencies that can be ‘filled’ by the best qualified person.
  2. Somebody in a classroom, separate from the work environment, can ‘teach’ you about a job requirement.
  3. The higher you are on the organization chart, the more you know.


Revolutionary innovation never happens alone, no matter what genius tries to do it. Kurt Vonnegut described the three types of specialists it takes to start a revolution, none of whom can succeed in isolation.

First type – a true genius: “a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation.” By themselves they are just lunatics.

Second type – a thought leader: “a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad.” By themselves they are unsatisfied.

Third type – the integrator: “a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people.” By themselves they are ignored.

Steve Borgatti explains that radical innovation only comes from networks with large structural holes, which are more diverse. This is why our social networks cannot also be our work teams, or they become echo chambers. In our work teams we can focus on incremental innovation, to get better at what we already do. Communities of practice then become bridges on this network continuum, being part individual and part interactive — “if radical innovators are too well connected to the network, they can get swamped by the prevailing wisdom. As a result, radical innovation is facilitated by sparser and clumpier networks — as in a skunk works.”

Steven B. Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, observed that, “innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas” and that the “secret to organizational inspiration is to build information networks that allow hunches to persist and disperse and recombine”. Innovation requires both goal-oriented collaboration and opportunity-driven cooperation, because complex problems cannot be solved alone. Implicit knowledge, that which cannot be codified or put into a database, needs to flow.

Social learning, developed through many conversations, enables this flow of implicit knowledge. This is not ‘nonsense chat’, as traditional management might view it, but is essential for creating stronger bonds in professional social networks. Companies have to foster richer and deeper connections which can only be built over time through meaningful conversations. Social learning in the workplace is necessary for any business. Innovation is a social process and the openness and transparency of our organizations and society can enable more connections which can foster innovation.

“The premise that innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas, when hunches can stumble across other hunches that successfully fill in their blanks, may seem like an obvious truth, but the strange fact is that a great deal of the past two centuries of legal and folk wisdom about innovation has pursued the exact opposite argument, building walls between ideas, keeping them from the kind of random, serendipitous connections that exist in dreams and in the organic compounds of life … [in a network environment] people can concentrate on coming up with new ideas, not building fortresses around the old ones. And because these ideas can freely circulate through the infosphere, they can be refined and expanded by other minds in the network.” —Where Good Ideas Come From

Innovation requires lots of connections and copying.

“It turns out that to develop a ‘cumulative culture’ – technology that constantly ratchets up in complexity and diversity – a species needs to be able to share information very accurately. It doesn’t matter how much novel invention takes place, unless those inventions are replicated accurately then they die out before they can be built upon.” —Prof. Kevin Laland, University of St. Andrew’s

Innovation is all about connections. At a certain point, not enough connections may even destroy the innovations we have made. History has shown this.

“If your number of minds working on the problem gets small enough, you can actually begin to lose information. There’s a steady state level of information that depends on the size of your population and the interconnectedness. It also depends on the innovativeness of your individuals, but that has a relatively small effect compared to the effect of being well interconnected and having a large population.” —How Culture Drove Human Evolution

To innovate we need to work on the structures and systems that promote imitation — open access to information, wide distribution of knowledge, and easy copying. The focus of innovation has to be on we, not me. If we can make our knowledge-sharing networks stronger, then human nature can take care of the rest.

Tim Kastelle confirms the need for sufficient connections. “We need input from people with a diversity of viewpoints to help generate innovative new ideas. If our circle of connections grow too small, or if everyone in it starts thinking the same way, we’ll stop generating new ideas.

New ideas come from openness. In complex and changing markets, innovation has much higher business value than merely coordinating internal tasks or improving processes. In trusted networks, openness enables transparency, which in turn fosters a diversity of ideas. Supporting the creation of social networks can increase knowledge-sharing which can lead to more innovation, because chance favours the connected organization.

Organizational leaders should ask themselves if they are adequately connected.

  • How quickly would we lose collective knowledge if people do not share their knowledge?
  • Are our knowledge networks large enough to ensure that collective knowledge does not get lost?
  • Is our organization more like an isolated island or part of a connected and diverse continent?

Gaining Insights

Organizational performance improvement is comprised of reducing errors and increasing insights, according to Gary Klein. These insights can lead to innovation. Based on 120 case studies he reviewed, Klein identified five types of ‘triggers’ that produced insights.

  1. Contradictions
  2. Creative Desperation
  3. Connections
  4. Coincidences
  5. Curiosity

Insights usually come while working, resting, and playing — not in a classroom. Innovation is connected to learning, but not necessarily formal education and training programs. It’s more about enabling people to learn together by providing the tools and the space.

The Little Black Book of Innovation describes four traits of successful innovators.

  • Questioning — Asking probing questions that impose or remove constraints. Example: What if we were legally prohibited from selling to our current customer?
  • Networking — Interacting with people from different backgrounds who provide access to new ways of thinking.
  • Observing — Watching the world around them for surprising stimuli.
  • Experimenting — Consciously complicating their lives by trying new things or going to new places.

Gunther Sonnenfeld’s great planning paradigm takes a similar approach to the above — from Observation, Insight, Belief to Breakthrough.


An Innovation Process?

Innovation is not a process. It’s more of an attitude focused on curiosity, learning, and experimentation. To innovate, constraints have to lifted, but this can disrupt the status quo.

“Catalysts are bound to rock the boat. They are much better at being agents of change than guardians of tradition. Catalysts do well in situations that call for radical change or creative thinking. They bring innovation, but they’re also likely to create a certain amount of chaos and ambiguity. Put them into a structured environment and they might suffocate. But let them dream and they’ll thrive.” — The Starfish & the Spider

In 2012, after a decade of looking at innovation in organizations, James Gardner said that first people have to be personally motivated — “the old ‘what’s in it for me?’ [WIIFM] question”. “In other words, if it personally affects us, we care about it. If it doesn’t, we might care a bit, but we are much less likely to take action to change things. He went on to state that, “I have not been able to find any regular correlation between well adopted innovation processes and actual innovation outcomes, and I’ve been looking pretty hard. And here at Spigit, we’ve got hundreds of data sets to look through.”

A focus on processes and error reduction — such as Six Sigma — actually gets in the way of innovation.

“Fifty-eight of the top Fortune 200 companies bought into Six Sigma, attesting to the appeal of eliminating errors. The results of this ‘experiment’ were striking: 91 per cent of the Six Sigma companies failed to keep up with the S&P 500 because Six Sigma got in the way of innovation. It interfered with insights.” —Gary Klein

Process improvement is a tool set, not an overarching or unifying concept for an organization. Process improvement is a means and not an end in itself. The fundamental problem with process improvement methodologies is that you get myopic. Methodologies like Six Sigma are great for speeding up assembly lines or minimizing errors, but they fail to produce insights.

Traditional innovation processes take many ideas, and through elimination, narrow these down to a few. But successful innovators do the opposite and — “break things down into their essential features, and then try to visualize the effect of different combinations, orientations, and application approaches” — according to Steve Flynn in The Learning Layer.

Innovation is like democracy, it needs people to be free within the system in order to work. Empowering knowledge artisans to use their own cognitive tools creates an environment of experimentation, instead of adherence to established processes. Look at a start-up company and you will see it is filled with knowledge artisans, using their own tools and connecting to outside social networks to get work done. They can be programmers, marketers, salespeople. Their distinguishing characteristic is seeking and sharing information to complete tasks. Knowledge artisans not only design the work, but they can also do the work. There is no innovation assembly line.

“So it is important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all philosophy in terms of successful innovation. The one constant is that you have to be open to change and new points of view. Innovation is continuous.” —Shaun Coffey

How to Start

Value creation in the 21st century is having ideas, connecting people and ideas, and trying new things out based on these ideas. Not only do these activities take time, they are highly social, as success often depends on who we work with. Instead of asking, what have you done for the company this week, we should be asking what ideas you have had, who have you discussed them with,  and what have you done to test them out. We also need to promote loose connections through communities and social networks.

“[Musical] Production company networks with a mix of weak and strong ties allowed easy communication but also fostered greater creativity because of the ideas of new members of the group and the synergies they created. Thus, the structure of the network appears to have a strong effect on both financial and critical success.” —Connected

In Organizations don’t tweet, people do, Euan Semple talks about Trojan mice, an idea he got from Peter Fryer at These are small change initiatives, that do not require the coordinated effort of something like a Trojan horse:

Trojan mice, on the other hand, are small, well focused changes, which are introduced on an ongoing basis in an inconspicuous way. They are small enough to be understood and owned by all concerned but their effects can be far-reaching. Collectively a few Trojan mice will change more than one Trojan horse ever could.

There is an art to spotting a Trojan mouse — you need to develop a critically trained eye. Seeing things differently, and seeing different things, is a powerful experience. And once you do, you can set your Trojan mice free to create the results your business needs.

Here is how five companies fostered innovation. We can learn from them but should never copy them.

  • Adobe –  “the challenge of creating a culture that supports experimentation”
  • Etsy – “Innovation is a process of continuous learning and improvement.”
  • WonderSpark – “While founders have a tolerance for failure, most employees don’t.”
  • Intercom – “one of the biggest challenges to innovating is simply getting started”
  • Comcast – “connect the dots between established processes and new opportunities”

I would like to conclude with this observation about the nature of creative knowledge work.

“Visualize the workflow of a physical job: produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce.

Now visualize the workflow of a creative knowledge worker: nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, flash of brilliance, nothing, nothing, nothing.”
Jay Cross (1944-2015)

That flash of brilliance often comes from reflection. Creative work is not routine work done faster. It’s a whole different way of work, and a critical part is letting the brain do what it does best — come up with ideas. Without time for reflection, most of those innovative ideas will get buried in the detritus of modern workplace busyness.

“Innovation comes from slack. Slack comes from saying no. If you’re afraid of both, no startup bubble technique is going to help you.”Cory Foy

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