Linguistically speaking, the word “innovation” means “introduce as new” from the Latin word innovare. But practically speaking, it means so much more.
In today’s business landscape, innovation is a buzzword that finds its way into corporate mission statements, motivational speeches as well as marketing and advertising materials.
But for entrepreneurs, startups and even established companies, it is the foundation upon which business success is built.
“If we think of entrepreneurship as quickly scaling, world-changing companies, innovation is quite necessary,” said Kevin Taylor, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Stetson University in DeLand. “It is how new ventures gain leverage and advantage over existing dinosaurs.”
The starting point is being able to see problems as opportunities and figuring out new ways to address those issues.
“Innovation requires first understanding what problems people and your company [are] facing,” Taylor said. “Once a problem is identified, you must understand how the problem is being solved currently. Once you understand how people currently deal with the problem, you can brainstorm alternatives.”
While the idea of innovation has been around for a long time, it wasn’t until the 19th century, during the period of the Second Industrial Revolution, that it became associated with science and industry. But even then, innovation was more commonly associated with the idea of invention and it was not widely used.
All that changed in the 1960s and it has seen a sharp rise in usage over the past four decades.
In fact, over the last 50 years the growth in technology has forced companies to embrace innovation to meet the demands of consumers.
According to an article from Northeastern University touting the school’s graduate program in innovation titled “The Importance of Innovation in Business,” innovation not only helps businesses grow, it keeps them relevant and enables them to differentiate themselves from other organizations.
The paper cites a survey that found nearly 80% of the business executives responding said innovation ranked in the top three initiatives of their companies and that focus on innovation is an important factor in business growth and success.
But merely focusing on innovation as an initiative isn’t enough. Coming up with an idea for a longer lasting lightbulb or game-changing app is only part of the innovation process.
“Innovation is the practice of successfully implementing new ideas, whereas creativity is the process of generating new ideas,” Taylor said. “Ideas are not necessarily useful. Check the Patent Office and you will see examples of thousands of useless ideas.”
Taking a good idea from thought to action – to make it truly innovative – requires the application of that urge to innovate that drives entrepreneurs and business owners and fosters success.
“Good ideas require someone to recognize that the idea could be useful,” Taylor said. “Useful ideas could revolve around how to use a new technology to solve a customer problem, how to find customers more cost-effectively or even how to remove steps in a production process, making it cheaper and so more profitable.”
And while talk of innovation is usually viewed through a commercial lens, the idea has broader implications for society at large.
For Stephanie Miller, executive director of Technology Transfer and Research Park Initiatives at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, innovation is not only important for business success, but for the larger community.
“On a grand scale, innovation leads to the advancement of civilization,” she said. “A new method, new product or new way of combining things can improve our lives by making things faster, cheaper, safer, more efficient or more useful.”
That need for innovative approaches extends to science and technology as well as business.
“In order to do research, you absolutely have to be innovative because you are endeavoring to discover, design and make something new,” she said. “It’s easy to replicate, it is hard to innovate.”
Miller said an important foundation for innovation is collaboration, which is a key part of ERAU’s Research Park effort.
“Innovation requires creativity because you are setting out into the unknown,” she said. “We help foster these by having the dynamic mix of university researchers, students, startups and established companies. We make sure to connect those working in similar fields, on similar problems or serving the same customers. They all see and approach a problem differently. They may have different expectations and goals, but those varying viewpoints can often lead to unexpected outcomes.”
Taylor said business owners can sharpen their “innovative muscle” by making a conscious effort to look for opportunities in the day-to-day activities of running a conscious effort to focus on challenges.
“Creativity is a process that can be practiced and strengthened,” he said. “Better creativity can lead to generating more ideas and more unexpected ideas. The best way to start is to keep an idea notebook and practice identifying problems throughout your day.”
Taylor said brainstorming ideas to solve problems – and even taking a few minutes every day to write down as many ideas as you can – is a good place to start.
“Finally, take all the ideas and use your common sense and logic to filter to the top the best two to three ideas and spend time on cultivating those ideas,” he said.
“Grow or die” has been a standard mantra in the business world for a long time. But these days the watchword just might be “innovate or die.”