The Meaning of Innovation

I was working on a consulting project last year in which one of the words used to describe our eventual work was “innovative”.

I’ve always liked how that word sounds, but haven’t been able to always fully define it. Society likes it too, because it’s written everywhere in an attempt to make jobs sound more modern, or something.

Wikipedia says innovation is a new method, idea, or product. Most of our ideas are “new,” but maybe not massively useful. Is it still innovation?

Is it innovation if I make sandwich that has meat out on the outside and bread on the inside? Or is it just a new idea?

So I asked the lead consultant on the project what it means to him to be innovative. I asked him if it’s just a swap word for creativity.

“Creativity is connecting two unlike ideas to create a new one, at least that’s how I see it,” he said. “Innovation, at least in our work, is using best practices in one industry and applying them to a new solution in another industry. Cross-industry work is innovative. It breaks patterns that many industries follow, so it’s useful. You’ve been a teacher and a technology consultant before. Have you ever used something unique to consulting to help you teach more effectively or efficiently?”

Turns out I had.

When I was a consultant, I’d used a spreadsheet macro, which records all of your movements in a spreadsheet so you can run stock reports on new data and produce automated reports, in order to solve a long-standing client problem.

And when I started teaching, I realized that some of the longest hours on the job were spent inputting numbers and colors into a spreadsheet. I spent an entire winter break automating the process, calculating a savings of many hours throughout the year.

The interesting thing was that when I figured out these automation tricks, my inclination was to tell everyone. So I made YouTube videos and told anyone who would listen to me that they could save time grading and planning if they used some of my automated macros.

The reaction I got from nearly everyone was: “Cool that you came up with this, great that you’re saving time… but it’s not something I really need.”

Excitement, but no willingness to implement. Everyone loving the idea of saving time, but not interested in changing habits to do it.

Habit changes are hard, after all, and they require serious motivation.

But it goes to show that if you build it, people won’t necessarily come. It’s more than that. And furthermore, it means that many innovative ideas have probably died due to lack of effort. It’s a shame.

I’m not saying you need to dedicate your days to exploring new and innovative solutions to problems, because that would become tiresome. But I am saying that if you have the opportunity to do something in a new way, and it won’t hurt your bottom line of time or money… do it.