What is innovation?

Sounds like an easy question. Or should be. But we still stumble over phrases like making ideas happen, solving problems, doing it profitably, or at least with a positive impact.

And of course its easy to resort to Apple, or more specifically, Steve Jobs. Whilst you’ve heard everything about him already, there is one moment worth recalling from that magical Stanford commencement speech he made in 2005. Whilst he talked about life, and making the most of your time, he captured the spirit of innovation in three sentences:

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Leonardo da Vinci was a great one for making new connections. His greatest breakthroughs came from connecting the unconnected, and in particular, the insights gained by bringing different perspectives together. His expertise in anatomy helped him to create better portraits and sculptures, and also helped him make sense of mechanics and engineering. He himself defined innovation as connecting the unconnected.

Another great disruptor, Albert Einstein was often challenged for making what seemed like absurd connections. Like the connection between energy and mass. Of course, there was no existing logic which suggested such a connection, it needed to be shaped through imagination. Almost every great scientific breakthrough has come about through hypothesis and then making sense through practical demonstration.

Back in the business world, I explored innovation with Sir Richard Branson, and the culture which he seeks to create across his Virgin companies, he reached for a pencil and paper and jotted down his equation of life … A+B+C+D (Always Be Connecting the Dots). Its not about creating newness, but making sense of what you have, maybe in fragments and different places, but can be shaped in new and interesting ways.

We spend much of our time collecting dots – seeking new insights, reading more books, generating more ideas – but too little time connecting dots. This requires confidence and creativity, to think bigger and laterally.

“The magic of connecting dots is that once you learn the techniques, the dots can change but you’ll still be good at connecting them.”

Indeed we live in an incredible world with so many great sources of ideas, insights and inspirations. I spend my exploring the world’s most innovative companies, the new markets which they shape, the business models which they develop, the new experiences they deliver to customers. There are so many ideas out there.

So many dots to connect …

  • Connecting ideas with different ideas to create new and unusual concepts
  • Connecting diverse people to combine talents, experience and perspectives
  • Connecting customers with business to gain insight and engagement
  • Connecting partners with business to gain capability and reach
  • Connecting customer needs and wants, to solve bigger problems
  • Connecting ideas from different places, across geographies and sectors
  • Connecting products and services, into richer customer experiences
  • Connecting markets in new ways, to operate different and better
  • Connecting business with new business models to be more profitable
  • Connecting media, channels and market networks to amplify the impact
  • Connecting customers with customers to build richer communities

The real skill is to see the bigger picture, the bigger space in which you can make the new connections – and then to make new connections – interesting, unusual, distinctive, better. Even if at first you question how will it work, how will it make money, don’t be disheartened. By adding more connections you will soon find ways to implement and sell your uniqueness, often in ways you never imagined.

And so innovation in every aspect of what you do.

And as I googled for more clarity (as you do), I came across this video:

It finishes with a great few lines, worth remembering for when you’re asked that question about what really is innovation:

So what is innovation?

Those other dots. The ones others miss.
And having the certainty to know that the dots you see are not only valid, but necessary if the world is to move forward.


Explore more from Peter Fisk about innovation: