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What Does Innovation Really Mean?

Updated: May 2, 2021

Instructional Designers are being asked to innovate by our organizations and our bosses. Yes, even before the pandemic, organizations urged employees to be innovative and to “think-outside-of-the-box”. Entrepreneurs are often heralded as innovative because they seek “new and innovative” products for our lives. But what does the term “innovation” even mean? When a word is bantered around as much as “innovation”, does it become a buzzword and loses its appeal?

To match the definition of “innovation” put forth in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it doesn’t take much. They define innovation as “…a new idea, method, or device: NOVELTY [and]… the introduction of something new.” It’s not much just “something new” but in a corporate setting or in your own consulting business, innovation needs to mean more, more than just new.

Some would say that innovation in business means creating something or implementing something that is different, creative, and unusual that improves efficiency and gives an organization or an individual some type of advantage that non-innovative people do not possess. What does that mean?

In my experience, working with organizations and people that call themselves innovative and working with individuals and people who are actually innovative, there are some traits that separate innovation for advantage and innovation for the sake of innovation.

Often, I find that real innovation comes from a deep understanding. An understanding not just about the company or business that you are in but also an understanding of the process of innovating.

The process of how a single, small idea grows into an innovation.

We’ve all met the “idea person” who has millions of great ideas but can’t execute on those ideas. Knowing how ideas are filtered, vetted and prioritized is critical to working toward innovation. Shaping the idea and looking for weaknesses, faults and imperfections is helpful but you can’t let it stop the process. The ability to “build the airplane while you are taking off” is also critical, and a healthy relationship with ambiguity and uncertainty helps. And don’t forget resilience or, in other words, the willingness to fail and to fail big and then to get up again and fail again. The willingness to put up with passive-aggressive bystanders and people that easily find the imperfections, faults and weaknesses that you are painfully trying to address. The path to innovation is not easy. One class or one experience does not make you innovative.

Being innovative is a culmination of experiences. But a method for accelerating the process of being innovative does require you to venture into experiences that open you up to new thoughts, new approach and, most importantly, new people. Experimenting with others while building an artifact such as a game or online lesson is one way to experience the process of being innovative. Trying new approaches to existing problems or process is a way to find a path to innovation. An experience where you aren’t exactly certain what the outcome will look like builds the innovative muscle in your brain and heart.

If innovation was really easy and anyone could do it, they would. But, no, innovation, true innovation is hard, it’s labor intensive, it’s expensive, it’s messy and, at times, it’s really not fun. Yet, innovation drives humans forward because, in the ends, it is rewarding, satisfying and can be life changing

If you want to get better at being innovative, take the time to practice being innovative. If you want your team to innovative but you provide the same instruction, workspace, resources and approaches as always, you won’t innovate. It’s simply not possible.

When large organizations want to innovate they take small groups out of the main stream of the organization and create what’s affectionately known as a “Skunkworks.” According to Wikipedia, a skunkworks “describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, with the task of working on advanced or secret projects.” These types of groups innovative because they are not hampered by the everyday minutia that can derail even the best of plans.


So, if be “innovative” or have an innovative team is on your list of resolutions or goals for 2021, one of the first things you need to do is find a place (preferably virtual in this day and age) and go away as a team to innovate together or learn to innovate on an interesting and engaging project. Even consider a project not 100% core to your immediate goals. Often side projects spark ideas, concepts and approaches you may not have every considered before.

Finally, consider attending Step Away! you’ll find a path that can lead to innovative ideas, concepts and approaches for the creation of interactive, engaging and meaningful instruction.

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