Friday, July 17, 2015

"But I know it when I see it..."

Justice Potter Stewart wrote that famous line in his concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 US 184, 197 (1964). He was good-naturedly musing about the Court's attempt to "define what may be indefinable," in that case, a legal definition of pornography that rises to a criminal level.

In a somewhat similar vein, I find it difficult to define "innovation" in a clear-cut manner. Like Justice Stewart, many of us may feel like we know it when we see it, but is it definable?

In thinking about this, I looked for where the word "innovation" originated. Much to my surprise, it is also grounded in the law:
"According to [Canadian historian Benoit] Godin, innovation is the most late-blooming incarnation of previously used terms like imitation and invention. When 'novation' first appeared in thirteenth century law texts as a term for renewing contracts, it wasn't a term for creation -- it referred to newness. In the particularly entrenched religious atmosphere of sixteenth and seventeeeth century Europe, doctrinal innovation was anathema. Some saw this newness as an affiliation with Puritanism, or worse -- popery. Godin cites an extreme case from 1636, when an English Puritan and former royal official, Henry Burton, began publishing pamphlets advocating againt church officials as innovators, levying Proverbs 24:21 as his weapon: 'My Sonne, feare though the Lord, and the King, and meddle not with them that are given to change' (cotation Godin's emphasis mine). In turn, the pot-stirring Puritan was accused of being the true 'innovator' and sentenced to a life in prison and worse -- a life without ears." -- Emma Green, Innovation: The History of a Buzzword, in The Atlantic (June 20, 2013) 
Thankfully, innovation is no longer punished. But read any contemporary book or article on innovation, and the authors will  provide their own unique definition, varying from the simplistic to the sophisticated:
"The academic literature on innovation and creativity is rich with subtle distinctions between innovations and inventions, between different modes of creativity: artistic, scientific, technological. I have deliberately chosen the broadest possible phrasing -- good ideas -- to suggest the cross-disciplinary vantage point I am trying to occupy." -- Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, p. 21 (2010)
"Incremental innovation is about significantly improving existing products, processes, or services. Disruptive or transformative innovation, on the other hand, is about creating a new or fundamentally different product or service that disrupts existing markets and displaces formerly dominant technologies." -- Tony Wagner, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, p. 10 (2012)
One definition that has resonated with me lately, that builds upon Johnson's "good ideas," is as follows:
"Innovation is defined as something new that can be applied in a useful way. Unlike inventions that refer more directly to the creation of an idea or method, innovation refers to the use of the better idea or method. It builds on the notion of doing something different rather than just doing the same things better as we might consider in improvement planning." -- Lyn Sharratt & Gale Harild, Good to Great to Innovate: Recalculating the Route to Career Readiness, K-12+, p. xvi (2015)
In reflecting on whether innovation is capable of being defined, I now wonder if the quest is deeper: if it should be definable. Do we undermine its purpose by trying to define it? Is it better to just "know it when I see it"?

Join the conversation...
What do you think or wonder?


  1. There is no one right answer! Being too tight can sometimes constrain (or restrain) creative and innovative ideas.

    1. Great point - we need to always be thinking about the loose/tight paradigm.

  2. What is innovation? I think innovation comes from constantly looking for a better mousetrap. From being willing to take risks, to tweak, to reflect, to tweak again and downright fail. In order to innovate we must have the freedom to fail. I also believe innovation is collaborative.

    1. The culture in which we operate is critically important to supporting innovators.