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Jeffrey Phillips


A Shared Innovation Language Accelerates Innovation

Creating a shared definition means we can explore more together

Published: Tuesday, December 19, 2017 - 12:01

I was leading an innovation workshop recently with a company that invited some of its customers to talk about the future. We were interested in getting feedback from key B2B customers about the future of the industry, where things were heading, and what strategies and programs my customer should begin to put in place. I was hired to lead a trend-spotting and scenario-planning workshop, but I had successfully convinced my client that we needed to establish a common framework and language about innovation first.

The participants were senior executives drawn from several industries the company serves. They all were leaders in their respective industries, and several of them promote innovation as a core operating capability. Nevertheless I felt it was important to establish a common definition and scope of innovation before moving ahead. What surprised me was the response from the participants.

I’ll know it when I see it

Like the Supreme Court justice called on to define pornography (“I know it when I see it”), the participants had very different, and frequently very narrow, definitions of “innovation.” While they were casually tossing words around like “disruptive,” they couldn’t really describe what it meant. Further, the narrow definitions extended to outcomes. For the most part, many of them were focused, when they were spending time on innovation, almost exclusively on product innovation.

Needless to say, I spent time talking about the difference between “incremental” innovation and disruptive innovation, their purposes and meaning, and the “three horizons” model of innovation, as well as a 70:20:10 portfolio plan. Thinking about concurrent innovation across several goals and horizons was really new and interesting for these participants.

Ten types

But we went further. It’s really a waste, I told them, to focus only on product innovation, when so many potential types of innovation are available. I then introduced Doblin’s Ten Types, which is basically received gospel to innovators but may as well be Sanskrit for most business types. They’ve never seen it, never thought deeply about it, but when it’s deciphered, they understand it immediately. What was funny about this was several of the participants were talking about the importance of customer experience but never seemed to realize that customer experience could be an intent or outcome of an innovation exercise.

Freeing their thinking

By working collectively to create a shared (if just for the moment) definition of innovation—which might seem like a constricting activity—we actually freed up some thinking because we were broadening the definition of innovation in several dimensions. First, across a spectrum of incremental to disruptive. Second, from discrete to continuous and often concurrent projects. And third, from an overemphasis on product innovation to the realization that innovation can happen over a range of outcomes (e.g.,, products, services, channels, business models, experiences).

Once you fully grapple with the opportunities and range of innovation activities and outcomes, the range of innovation possibilities can seem a bit limitless. Then will come the natural convergence to start choosing where or what you want to innovate, and a natural divergence as you start to explore the possibilities again.

Language and common definitions are critical to any interaction. When each party has its own definitions of innovation, and rather narrow definitions at that, little can be accomplished and many opportunities are left by the wayside. Stopping to create a shared definition, expanding the range of opportunities and options, means we can explore more together. Why we still need to do this—go back to the basics of key factors like definitions and language, exploring the range and potential outcomes of innovation—indicates that we are closer to the end of the beginning of innovation as a corporate capability, rather than at the beginning of the end.

First published Nov. 13, 2017, on the Innovate on Purpose blog.


About The Author

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Jeffrey Phillips

Jeffrey Phillips is the lead innovation consultant for OVO, which offers assessments, consulting, training and team definition, change management, innovation workshops, and idea generation space and services. Phillips has led innovation projects in the United States, Western Europe, South Africa, Latin American, Malaysia, Dubai, and Turkey. He has expertise in the entire “front end of innovation” with specific focus on trend spotting and scenario planning, obtaining customer insights, defining an innovation process, and open innovation. He’s the author of Relentless Innovation (McGraw-Hill, 2011), and 20 Mistakes Innovators Make (Amazon Digital Services, 2013), and co-author of OutManeuver: OutThink—Don’t OutSpend (Xlibris, 2016).