For Project Managers: What is the Definition of Innovation?

Innovation is an important topic these days simply because it is becoming critical to survival – for companies, governments, and people. Indeed, we have seen the effect on all three of the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

Innovations are usually not completely new, a single stroke of genius, or just about a product. Let’s explore the question, “What is the definition of innovation?” and how understanding innovation in the practice of project management. Further let’s explore how we can innovate more, derive more ‘good’ from it, and make it happen in areas that matter most.

Beginning to answer “What is the definition of innovation?”

What is the definition of innovationLet’s start out with the basics. What are some common definitions out there for innovation?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides the following definition of innovation:

  1. the introduction of something new
  2. a new idea, method, or device

Synonyms for innovation include:

change, alteration, revolution, upheaval, transformation, metamorphosis, reorganization, restructuring, rearrangement, recasting, remodeling, renovation, restyling, variation; new measures, new methods, new devices, novelty, newness, unconventionality, modernization, modernism; a break with tradition, a shift of emphasis, a departure, a change of direction; informal shake up

Wikipedia’s definition of innovation says that, “Innovation is the practical implementation of ideas that result in the introduction of new goods or services or improvement in offering goods or services.”

Other definitions of innovation cite the process of transforming ideas into a commercial reality or generating creative solutions to problems that result in improved performance.

Innovation from a Strategic Perspective

The diagram below illustrates what is called “The Innovator’s Dilemma” from a book by the same name by the late Clay Christensen of Harvard Business School.

incremental and disruptive innovation

Here is an explanation of the key elements in the diagram:

The green line – what customers want:

This shows the performance demanded by customers in the marketplace. This performance results from innovation in:

  • products
  • processes
  • brands
  • business models

The green line illustrates that customers want continued improvements at a certain pace which they can readily absorb.

The blue line – incremental innovation:

This shows ‘sustaining improvements,’ or advances by gradually advancing products, processes, brands, or business models from the same baseline. Sustaining improvements are driven by incremental innovations.

The slope of the blue line shows that the market leader most likely is able to implement improvements faster than customers want (the green dashed line). Efforts earlier in the cycle, which are below the green line, create tangible value. However, later in the cycle, above the green line, the improvements generally exceed what customers really want, so decreasing tangible value is created.

The red line – disruptive innovation:

This line initially offers customers a lower initial performance compared to the established market leader, which is represented by the blue line. However, the performance is satisfactory to a segment of the customer base and at a much lower cost. That segment of customers was probably under served, or even completely ignored until now. This is a disruptive innovation.

With performance improvement to the disruptive offering over time, the disruptive innovator can gradually appeal to a wider range of customers, gain market share, and even eventually overcome the current market leader. This typically happens after the red line intersects with the green line, where performance reaches and then exceeds what customers want.

Innovation from a Project Perspective


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The projects and programs – indeed the portfolio – come from the various initiatives to produce incremental or disruptive innovation, again in any combination of the following areas:

  • products
  • processes
  • brands
  • business models

As a result, project, program, and portfolio managers in such an innovative environment need to be keenly aware of the forces at work behind the innovation strategies they are implementing. They need to do this through keen awareness of the drivers of innovation at three levels:

innovation at the organization, team, and individual levels

Organizational level innovation

Organizations need to decide where they sit on the innovation spectrum – that is, how important is innovation to the organization and who they serve, and is the innovation incremental or disruptive.

There will be needs all across the spectrum but how things are structured is the question. The realities of industry evolution, industry structure, and organizational structure – even an ecosystem strategy – need to be shaped to find the right balance.

Team level innovation

The starting point is for project and program managers to be clearly tuned into the posture on innovation at the organizational level.

With that understanding, they can build teams striving for the right balance of technical skills, communication styles, personalities, and varied experiences they think are most likely to produce the level of innovation needed.

Individual level innovation

Individuals can hone innovation skills, if they have the desire combined with the right cultural/organizational context. As individuals, they can practice being curious, express empathy, collaborate inclusively, have the courage to step outside real or perceived boundaries, experiment, be flexible and agile, and commit to being an innovator.

Organizations, teams, and individuals all need to build their own custom approach to innovation.

Innovation as a Process

Innovation is very much a process, much as project management itself is a process. Think of the components of any innovation efforts, including testing, measuring, learning, and sharing.

The diagram below, derived from “The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators” – also by Clay Christensen – captures a good process for generating innovations.

innovation as a process

The diagram shows four requirements to do innovation, and the steps for innovating.

  1. Courage to Innovate – A team or organization needs to have the desire and commitment to innovate as a prerequisite. The culture needs to include a propensity to challenge the status quo and to take action, which is risky.
  2. Behavioral Skills – Individuals and teams must have core skills and prioritized time for doing the following:
    1. Question – Look beyond the status quo and ask who, what, when, where, why, and how.
    2. Observe – Spend uninterrupted time with an open mind to seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, tasting – whatever it takes to fully experience the object of interest.
    3. Network – this refers to collaborating among colleagues – others who are experiencing the problem, trying to solve it, or have an interest in any way.
    4. Experiment – Try stuff. Find ways – cheaper and quicker is better – to try out possible solutions and learn something. Record results and try to be as deliberate and through as possible, ensuring that everyone is learning and absorbing.
  3. Cognitive skill to synthesize novel inputs – The individuals and team need to have the capability, individually or collectively, to take feedback and run with it. They must have the ability to take the project forward.
  4. Innovative results – With all the work that is taking place, ultimately more ideas and solutions are the objective. Take time to consolidate and assimilate across the team what everyone is learning and gather the ideas everyone is generating.

This is not the only, or the official, innovation process, but seems like a good one that captures the key elements. It applies to both incremental and disruptive innovation. And the process does not end, but continues indefinitely as an ongoing process.

Is There a Single Definition for Innovation?

So, what is the definition of innovation?

The answer is that it depends upon the context – as an organization, team, and individual. There is no uniform way to think about or approach innovation, and most likely success can result from implementing a deliberate process involving teams and individuals with a distinct variety of skills and tendencies.

Innovation at its best is a structured process that strikes a balance between strategy and implementation.


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