What is innovation?

A clear answer to a difficult question

James Taylor
3 min readFeb 4, 2021


We’ve all heard the word. In fact, you probably hear it multiple times every day. Though, do you really, confidently know what it means? This is what we’ll explore in the next couple of minutes, helping you to understand what innovation is and what and how you can harness the power of ideas.

What is innovation?

We’ve been like you, working in a business with people using terms like innovate and innovation left right and centre. It’s probably a strong contender for the most used office term or phrase. Perhaps only outdone by everyone’s newest favourite, “sorry, you’re on mute”.

What to people really mean when they talk about innovation? We’ve spent years better understanding questions like this and have developed a clear understanding of not just what innovation means, but how to actually deliver innovation successfully, helping individuals, small and even large companies, like National Grid, Highways England and the Ministry of Defence to deliver more successful innovations.

So what really is innovation? Well, it’s not actually that easy, as from a definition point of view, there’s no clear consensus. We’ve seen perhaps over a hundred different definitions and a search of “definition of innovation” in Google will deliver you over 1.7trillion results! However, there are some clear themes. Here are ten definitions of innovation from reputable dictionaries and innovation authors. Which resonate with you?

  1. Oxford Dictionary — The introduction of new things, ideas or ways of doing something.
  2. Cambridge dictionary — The use of a new idea or method.
  3. Collins dictionary — A new thing or a new method of doing something.
  4. Dictionary.com — Something new or different introduced.
  5. Business dictionary — The process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay.
  6. Peter Drucker — The task of endowing human and material resources with new and greater wealth-producing capacity.
  7. Larry Keely — The creation of a viable new offering.
  8. Tom Kelly — People creating value through the implementation of new ideas.
  9. David Burkus — The application of ideas that are novel and useful.
  10. Paul Sloane — The implementation of something new.

What did you feel is most accurate? It’s hard to say, isn’t it? Did you spot any themes?

What is innovation not?

When considering what innovation is, it can be helpful to consider what it’s not. Often innovation is confused with the need for someone to pay for an idea. For us, this confuses things. Money doesn’t need to change hands for something to be innovative. The best example of this is within organisations where people come up with and implement fantastic new ways of doing things all the time — i.e. small and large innovations where no money passes hands.

In simple terms…

All definitions agree that an idea alone is not an innovation. It’s the application of this idea that is important. So, whilst there are differing views, we’ve found the simplest, more accurate and useful definition to be, “the application of new ideas”. It’s important to recognise though that you don’t need an absolute definition. You just need to understand the principles of what it is and isn’t.

A more important question?

Perhaps a more important question than “what is innovation?” is “why do we want to know?” The obvious answer here is, to understand how to apply it.

Before reading this you probably had an awareness of innovation and related it to novel things, like driverless cars or space flights. Perhaps you linked it to individuals, like Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison. If you’re like us, you are thinking… “these are all really interesting technologies and people, how can I do that, or be more like them?” Check out our blog, “How does innovation happen?”, now.

Want to learn more?

How does innovation really work? And how does it differ from concepts like invention and creativity? We explore exactly this in our 20min, interactive, e-learning course module, which right now, we’re giving you completely free. Check out more details here.

We want to hear from you

Have you found innovation is often misused? Which definitions resonated most with you? Do you have further questions? Comment below now.

Originally published at https://www.innovationfundamentals.com on September 21, 2021.



James Taylor

A chartered engineering and innovation consultant and CEO of Innovation Fundamentals. His expertise includes innovation, entrepreneurship and complex systems.