Innovation: I Know it When I See It

I cannot describe pornography, but I know it when I see it.

In 1964 Justice Potter Stewart of the US Supreme Court made this (para)phrase famous as the litmus test for obscenity. The expression has become one of the most ubiquitous quotes from the Supreme Court and seems a typically pragmatic assessment from the Michigan-born judge. For me, it is often my guideline for defining what is innovation for my customers.

Defining innovation is not an easy task. I recall a moment from my Undergraduate degree (Circa 1990) when my roommate was panned by a history professor when he argued that Admiral Nelson was not an innovator. Despite marking up my friend’s paper, he also gave it a solid grade due to his ability to defend his stance on Nelson because many of the Admiral’s tactics were brazen and daring to the point of being innovative-a fine line. The challenge when defining innovation for your company, is what advancements or criterion truly moves something forward and separates it from the status quo or a daring tactic?

Software is a particularly interesting study of innovation. How many really novel inventions in business software can you think of in the past 10 years? While dramatic shifts are rare, advancement, adaptations and replications happen every day and can make the innovators obsolete very quickly. Contrarily software can be mis-sold and offer no improvements or unique advancements.

Globalisation combined with the need to be more competitive and efficient has resulted in an unprecedented increase in technology innovation in both hardware and software. To remain competitive, companies need to stay with, or ahead of, the innovation curve and must invest in market awareness, research and development to do this. Many companies are recognising that internal programs on their own are not providing enough competitive advantage.  Adaptations to the concept of Open Innovation promoted by Berkeley’s Henry Chesbrough have begun to permeate across companies.

In layman’s terms, Open Innovation is based around the concept that good ideas can exist outside of the organisation and be adapted to your needs. In practice this has seen many different forms, some of which really stretch the boundaries of our imagination.

In my experience, the search for external innovation is a key indicator of successful companies. For many of the most innovative, there is a systematic process at the heart of any program which is the key to uncovering and driving advancement. Some tips to creating or developing a corporate innovation program:

  • Get executive sponsorship and leadership
  • Create/allocate a budgeted department with the power to make changes
  • Set goals and targets as to where you want to be
  • Look outside your organisation
  • Develop a model for evaluating innovative technology and new ideas
  • Trial/pilot as many ideas as you can
  • Get help where you need it!

Defining innovation may not be the easiest task but that shouldn’t stop employees from looking outside their organisation to be more innovative. Don’t worry, when the right innovation comes across your desk, you’ll recognise it!
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Stephen Mooney is a full time entrepreneur and part-time blogger on topics ranging from challenges facing start-ups, to pop culture to running. He is currently part of the UKTI’s Global Entrepreneur Programme and CEO of  Synoptica. Synoptica is a leading SaaS platform that helps organisations to uncover, rank and engage with innovative SME’s.