Understanding and Promoting Innovation in 21st Century Communities: Part 1

I’ve been reading a lot lately on innovation, how to harness it, how to define it, and how to help other people get there. Although all of these scenarios require a fair amount of work to achieve, it is important to be honest with yourself so that you understand where you fit in currently so that you can take the next steps to becoming more creative and innovative in personal and professional interactions. Below I’ve compiled some helpful tips on how to achieve innovative results in your personal and professional life. But before we begin discussing how to be innovative or how we can help others be innovative, it may be useful, for our purposes at least, to define innovation.

The “I” word (… and no, it’s not dirty)

Innovation is a difficult term to really pin down, although when we see people being innovative it is often extremely obvious. First, let’s start with a white bread definition and then work our way into some more specific and helpful descriptions: innovation is the application of a new solution to a pre-existing problem, situation, or paradigm. When we think of innovation in this context, we realize that people are always innovating, even in the smallest and most insignificant ways, although most of these ideas aren’t game changers in any given industry.

There are two main ways that we can conceive of innovation, directional and intersectional, or improving and creating (Thanks to Frans Johansson for these terms). Directional innovation occurs along a line and improves by taking an already existing product, service, or process and changing it to make it more effective in certain environments. A good example of this type of innovation is infomercial products, although not all types of improvement innovation are nearly that vapid. Most infomercial products take a pre-existing product and improve it in some way. For example, we have a spaghetti strainer made of synthetic substances to prolong it use, but the rising steam from the cooked pasta burns your hands when you hold it around the edges to drain. Solution: add handles and sell for three easy payments of $9.95.

While this is a rather elementary illustration of this principle, it is important to note that this type of improvement or directional innovation is just as important as creating, and in many ways equally as profitable, both monetarily and in time savings if we’re discussing refining business processes. No one has yet reinvented the wheel, but it has gone through many innovations to make it more durable and more effective in different situations.

The second type of innovation involves creating a product, service, or process to meet an as of yet unmet need. This is know as intersectional innovation, innovation that occurs where two or more disciplines or lines join. I think that it is safe to say that this type of innovation is rarer than the previous type. While we have had several different rounds of innovation applied to the spaghetti strainer, there was only one genius who had the wherewithal to pour scalding pasta into a holey bowl first. Many of the innovators belonging to this category developed ideas or products by combining disparate components into something wholly new.

Promoting Personal and Professional Innovation

Now that we have a better understanding of what innovation actually is, we can begin to answer the all important question: How can I, and the people around me, become more innovative? The answer is simpler than you could have imagined, but accomplishing it is a difficult feat to say the least. A large part of being innovative requires breaking cognitive and behavioral norms. People are not isolated creatures, and the pervasive culture around us has the ability to influence our thought patterns and actions in a variety of often unseen ways. In Part 2 of this post we will look at some ways to apply this understanding of innovation to our work and social life.

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