Innovation is defined by challenge

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What makes for great innovation? Plato defined it best several thousand years ago:

“Necessity, who is the mother of invention.”

If you wonder why there isn’t much innovation in a space, one of the causes is likely to be that there isn’t a call for it. Think about it like mountain climbing. If you have a very short mountain in front of you, barely more than a hill, chances are you’ll just walk up the thing. You won’t invent any specialized gear or flying machines just to walk up a hill. But as the mountain gets taller and steeper, or the time you have to climb it grows shorter and more urgent, innovation becomes important. How do you get up the taller mountain, where walking won’t get you? How do you get up the mountain faster, because someone needs help? The scope of the challenge will define the innovation that takes place.

Autumn in New England

Look at something like social media. There hasn’t been a ton of innovation in social media because we haven’t had a supremely difficult challenge in front of us that has necessitated new ways of thinking, new ways of doing things, new ways of solving problems. The innovation is happening in the places where the challenges are tall, like Big Data or mobile development. A product like Google Glass may or may not solve a significant problem, but the challenge of the concept is tall, and thus innovation is popping around the space of wearable computing.

If you feel like innovation is lagging at your company, if you feel like you don’t have enough cutting edge action happening, then look to see what challenges have been put in front of you. You may have difficulties, but the challenge of overcoming those difficulties is low – you know the problem, you’re just not executing well on the solution. If you need to find innovation, then find the tallest mountain to climb and say, we’re going up that. See what you innovate to start making it up the mountain.

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