Innovation has clearly become a buzzword in our society. Everything is innovative from consumer products like shampoo and toilet paper to business practices like purchasing and budgeting. As it so often does with terms and elements of pop culture that may be “jumping the shark,” the satirical news site, The Onion, jumped in with an article alleging that the term was used over 650,000 times just four days into the South by Southwest festival.

There is truth, however, in satire. What does “innovation” mean? What are the goals of innovation? Is it simply in the eyes of the beholder? Does the field have a consensus around a common definition?

Let’s start with the dictionary. According to Merriam-Webster, innovation means:

  1. The introduction of something new;
  2. A new idea, method or device

It seems simple, then. Innovation means new things whether it is a process, thought, or thing. But this definition lacks any sense of the emotional content that lies behind our frequent use of innovation. There is a sense that innovation brings with it something good or better than what we have right now.

As part of an exercise with the Twitter chat group #innochat, I asked for possible definitions of innovation that went beyond Merriam-Webster. Each definition centered on the idea that innovation brings with it something new to a situation. It changes the status quo by bringing things together that might never have been combined before (e.g. this vintage Reese’s peanut butter cup commercial).wordle

Innovation is more than just being new, though. There is a sense that as Sir Ken Robinson writes that innovation “is usually assumed to be a positive thing.” That positive thing could be an increase in value, productivity, or just the ability to shine a light on the unseen. Connected to this is a practical element where innovation addresses possible perceived needs or failures of existing things or processes which then adds to its positive nature.

In the end, however, innovation, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. Our own belief systems will guide us to see something as innovative or as a challenge to something that already works. It is ultimately up to us to determine if the new brings value.

Special thanks to Ken Gordon, Jaime Faith Woods, Andrew Marshall, and Renee Hopkins for their contributions.