A Brief History of Innovation Its Next Evolution

A Brief History of Innovation … and Its Next Evolution

This week I ran three days of workshops for PVH (Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, etc.) and UTC (the huge tech firm that makes everything from Otis elevators to NASA space suits). In the gaps of time I’ve been working on defining the name for my next book, which has led to researching the word “innovation.”

As with most concepts, the meaning of innovation has evolved over time. And I believe its meaning is about to change once again.

You see, “innovation” was first a derogatory term. In the 13th century, the word “novation” appeared in legal texts as a term for renewing a contract. So “novation” means new, as in a new version of a contract.

In the 16th-century religious environment, it gathered negative associations thrown at people who sought to rewrite religious texts. Innovators were jailed and even put to death.

With the Industrial Revolution, the idea of innovation became associated with science, the invention of new machines and products. As governments began to emphasize research labs and patents as a source of economic advantage, innovators were elevated as positive contributors. Change, once bad, was now good.

In 1939 the influential economist Joseph Schumpeter, arguably the originator of the concepts that led to what we now call “entrepreneurship,” introduced an important distinction. Invention, he argued, was the creation of something new (e.g., a new product), while innovation related to the adoption of that new thing (e.g., the bringing of a new product to market). Steve Jobs put it this way: “innovation is creativity that ships.” Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, most famous for coining the term “flow,” makes the distinction between little-c creativity and big-C Creativity where creativity is the invention of something new and Creativity is the adoption of that thing.

From the 1950s, the frequency of the term “invention” in texts began steadily declining as the term “innovation” rose, and by the 1980s, “innovation” took the lead. Today we talk and write much more about “innovation” than “invention.” We have Most Innovative Company rankings, innovation conferences, and “40 under 40” innovator lists.

But here is the thing. Schumpeter was right in distinguishing creativity from the adoption of creativity’s product. But this distinction misses the most significant barrier to the adoption of new things. He focused on when and how the market adopts a new product. However, for a new thing to make it to the market, it must first be adopted from within the company that introduced it.

Too often great ideas fail to gain adoption inside a company. This is why Xerox famously rejected the computer mouse, graphical interface, and technology that gave birth to Adobe.

To ensure the world benefits from creativity, we need to start looking at the barriers within our organizations that hinder the adoption of promising ideas.

That is where my passion lies. That is what my next book seeks to address.

In my workshops today, the participants developed radical, brilliant ideas that could transform their organizations and our world. But at the end of each day, participants stand looking at the same concern: will my company even consider this idea? How will I get funding? How will I get time to work on these ideas?

Innovation is going to need to split again. If creativity is the invention of something new and innovation is the adoption of that new thing in the market, we are left with the organizational gap between the invention and the market. We must find a new term to name the challenge.

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