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What Is Innovation?

Innovation is a massively popular term in business these days. Frankly you can’t open up an issue of Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, or even the Wall Street Journal without hearing someone rant about it. The commentators talk about who’s leading, who’s lagging, and why it is so critical. The funny part is innovation seems to be like art in that people know it when they see it, but have a hard time defining it.

For the better part of the last decade Apple has been considered highly innovative with their introduction of category creating (or at least changing) products such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Lately, however, the experts seem to lament Apple’s apparent lack of continued innovation due to its focus on incremental improvements to its existing ecosystem rather than introduction of unique new product releases. Some are even saying that it has lost its edge since the passing of Steve Jobs.

Apple is not the only innovation darling that no longer seems as shiny as it used to. Southwest Airlines was once considered the upstart of the airline industry because it challenged the dogma of the legacy carriers’ business models, but is now established and considered much less ground-breaking. Facebook is considered the innovator of social media (even though several other sites preceded it), but sometimes struggles to maintain its luster despite starting to finally turn a profit and show stability of its business model.

So what do these examples tell us about business innovation? Does it tell us that innovative companies are only the ones that come up with something new and novel? Does it tell us that innovative companies are only the ones who over turn the apple cart? Does it tell us that a company can only be considered innovative for a finite amount of time before it loses its luster and the pundits turn their attention elsewhere? Despite what the anecdotal evidence would suggest, the truth is absolutely not.

Being innovative is not just a matter of being fresh and new. It is not just a matter of being disruptive. It is certainly not just a matter of being hip. Being innovative is more a matter of being creative with some part of the business model, then successfully implementing and executing those creative ideas (Von Stamm, 2008). That word successful is a critical one.

Anyone who remembers the late '90s and early 2000s will recall a landscape littered with companies that everyone touted as innovative, but were unable to execute on their creative ideas. As such, many went out of business. Some of the ideas, such as grocery shopping over the internet (e.g., WebVan and PeaPod), were very creative but just not really logistically feasible on a large scale or as standalone businesses. Other ideas, such as radio and TV over the internet (e.g. were very creative, but not supported by the technical infrastructure of the time. Interestingly, now that the technology has caught up we are seeing a proliferation of radio and streaming video over the internet. For example Pandora and NetFlix are fast growing companies that are successfully executing on the creative ideas that others failed at before them.

So what does all this tell us about innovation? It tells us that being innovative as a business is not just about having some out of the box idea. While those new ideas are important, they are only a starting point. We can’t stop there. To be innovative we have to be able to take a creative new idea and design a way to implement it in a successful and sustainable way. Of course to be able to do that we have to understand what creativity, design and implementation are. We’ll get into those shortly.


Von Stamm, B. (2008). Managing innovation, design and creativity (2nd ed.). Chichester, United Kingdom: Wiley.

Related Benedictine Programs

If you’re interested in learning more about innovation, Benedictine’s MBA in Entrepreneurship and Managing Innovation focuses on instrumental success factors to assess and explore new business opportunities including managing creativity, building a business plan, and financing your venture. Benedictine University also offers online Undergraduate degree programs. To learn how an online degree from Benedictine can help you in a new business venture talk to a Program Manager today.

About the Author

Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with eighteen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard.

He can be reached at or via Twitter @jimmybrownphd