Capturing the essence of innovation – some innovation aphorisms

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

If you are someone involved with innovation, how do you explain it to others? How do you explain the peculiarities, the aspects of the innovation process that makes it different from other activities?

Innovation is quite often an ‘experiential’ process – it’s something a lot of us learn about from doing (or being involved). But sometimes we need to help other people get across innovation, what it means, and what needs to be done to support it.

One method is to use stories and anecdotes that give some insight into the innovation process. However we may not always have the right sort of stories available to us or ones that fit our particular situation or environment.

So another method is to use aphorisms, or quotes and sayings that help illustrate innovation in a meaningful but concise fashion. Basically, sayings that convey a lot with very few words.

Below are some of the aphorisms I have collected or that have resonated with me, and some reflections on why. We’re also seeking more, so add your favourites in comments or by email and we’ll add them to the list below.

Some innovation aphorisms

    • “Innovation is like a puppy – it’s for the everyday, not just for Christmas” (From a colleague at the Department of Employment). Innovation is something that requires ongoing attention and support. It isn’t something that you can just pick up and play with when you need it, you have to look after your innovation capability all the time. (Unfortunately innovation isn’t quite as adorable as a puppy though…)
    • “We only need innovation on two occasions – when things are going well… and when they’re not” (Tim Kastelle, UQ). When things are not going well for organisations, it is unlikely the situation is going to improve on its own – we need innovation to get better outcomes. And if things are going well and we are not innovating, then the likelihood that things will keep going well is going to decrease…
    • “In this century, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results” (Allan Ryan, Hargraves Institute) An adaptation of a quote often mis-attributed to Einstein, this quote nicely emphasises how in a world of ongoing change we cannot expect that our previous strategies will continue to deliver the results they once did. We need to continually adjust and innovate
    • “Show me a completely smooth operation and I’ll show you someone who’s covering mistakes. Real boats rock.” (Frank Herbert) A personal favourite, this quote in part speaks to the unpredictable nature of innovation – innovation is not a smooth journey, and if it looks like it is, then you’re probably not seeing the full picture
    • “Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road” (Voltaire) This quote is a tad more sombre, but points to the tendency for radically new ideas to be responded to with … well, not stones exactly…
    • “Never try to sell a meteor to a dinosaur. It wastes your time and annoys the dinosaur” (Hugh MacLeod) An alternate perspective on the same theme, it cautions against trying to put forward ideas to those who just simply are not going to be receptive
    • “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old” (Peter F. Drucker) Innovation is about choices – we can’t pursue every good idea, and for every good idea we do pursue, we have to consider what we’re going to stop doing
    • “Creativity is a choice” (Hugh MacLeod). We can all be creative, if we choose to be so. Whether we want to choose to be is influenced by a number of factors however…
    • “Anyone who says failure is not an option has also ruled out innovation.” (Seth Godin) Innovation is inherently experimental, we don’t know what’s going to happen, and that means it will involve failure. If we want to be sure that there will not be failure, then we have made it clear that we do not want there to be innovation
    • “Innovation, learning, and experimentation are team sports” (Jocelyne Bourgon). Innovation is about people, and it is a social process. One person with an idea is going to have trouble, you need to be part of a team to be really successful
    • “We are constantly innovating how we innovate” (A.G. Lafley) Innovation is not a static process. The innovation process has to change over time to respond to new challenges and insights about how innovation works.

These are some that I think capture some of the essence of the innovation process, but there are many many more out there. What are your favourites? What are the quotes or sayings that have helped you explain to others the nature of innovations?

Additions from our network…

    • “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all” (Oscar Wilde)
    • “The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them” (Albert Einstein)
    • “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower” (Steve Jobs)
    • Necessity is the mother of innovation
    • “Innovation is like creating a new blend of spice mix; each unique blend enables you to invent new flavours/delicacies” (Monica D’Souza)