What Innovation Is and Isn’t

presenting (1)To simplify the notion of innovation, it is something that is both new (either invention or iteration) and better. Innovation is not about the “stuff”, but about a way of thinking.

For example, it is not the iPhone that is innovative, it was the thinking that created it in the first place.   Innovation is about mindset more than anything. In fact, if you made an iPhone that looked more like the first version than the current one, it would no longer be innovative, but simply replication.  There is no new thinking, nor is it better than what we have now.

Yet often, innovation is often used as a synonym for technology (which it is not), or to describe something that is simply “new”.  Innovation can happen in all areas of our world today, both inside and education.  There are many people that are designing assessment practices that extremely innovative, because they are both new and better in the way they improve learning. The ideas behind these innovative assessment practices also start from the viewpoint of the learner, not the teacher.  In fact, sometimes the newer assessment practices, although better for students, are often more work for the teacher.  It is simple to throw a subjective grade on a report card comparatively to the rich type of assessment teachers are helping to develop students to drive powerful learning.

Think about the idea of the “flipped classroom”.  Many would say this is an “innovation” in the world of teaching and learning, but if this new practice truly is, what makes it “better” (for the students)?  To understand that, what “better” means (is it test scores, student engagement, deeper learning) has to be articulated as well.  If it is just a new way of teaching, without the “better”, it is not innovative.

Here is an example of a new practice that is happening in health that may not be innovative, at all. Many schools are wanting students to eat healthier, so they are taking their current vending machines, and replacing “junk” food with healthier options.  The hope in this case in many places is that the lack of the option of the unhealthy food in a vending machine, will give students no choice but to eat healthy.  What this has done in many cases is actually not led students to eating healthier food, but actually sometimes leaving school and choose unhealthier options at things such as convenience stores, that actually have larger portions of the unhealthier food.

Although this is a new idea, if kids are actually eating less at school and still making unhealthy choices, is it better?  The voice that has often been missing in these health initiatives is that of the students.  To help people change, it is important to understand what drives their habits in the first place.  Simply replacing “A” with “B” is sometimes not only NOT innovation, it could actually lead to something worse then what we had before.  Designing solutions with the end in mind (the person/people you are serving), is crucial for any innovation to be successful.

Innovation is about a way of thinking, and if we do not design something that is both new and better, we are not thinking with an innovator’s mindset, but simply different.  The idea that Apple is famously known for of  “Think Different” was a start, but not enough. Different for the sake of different is not only something that could eventually be a waste of time, but could sometimes even leave us worse off from where we started.


  1. David Jakes said:

    Actually, I think the iPhone design is actually quite innovative, as well as the thinking that went into creating it, as you mention. Design, which is a process that can produce both innovative process and product, links the two together to create uniquely human solutions. The iPhone itself not innovative? People don’t stand in lines to buy the process, they stand in line to buy something unique that looks at a human need in a unique and compelling way.

    June 12, 2015
    • Chris Allen said:

      Very true. Innovative ways of thinking without a result, implementation timelines and lines of authority are interesting but do not contribute to cultural progress.

      June 13, 2015
  2. lovinda said:

    I agree that many practices that we adopt are not innovations because they do not create the conditions necessary to change our thinking. The example of removing junk food is an excellent example of how we sometimes address a symptom rather than the actual issue as a quick fix and call it innovation.

    June 23, 2015
    • JoEllen said:

      I liked the comment about picking healthy food. It is not innovative to simply change what is offered in a vending machine. Society needs to look at the reasons children are making unhealthy choices and not just put a bandaid on the problem.

      June 23, 2015
    • Brian said:

      Lovinda is correct. Physical changes rather than changing the culture make little or no difference in an organization and can, at times, be very detrimental as some people will expect change of hearts and minds to follow. True transformative change requires innovation of thought. Great point, Lovinda.

      July 1, 2015
  3. Sean said:

    Thanks for posting this. Your example of snack machines in school is the perfect example of unintended consequences. Too often, we forget that change needs to have a purpose and that we need to evaluate where the change that was made has lead us closer to that goal.

    June 23, 2015

Comments are closed.