Innovation is not ideation: it’s a process that enables ideas to flow towards impact

“Innovation without execution is only ideation” — Garry Lyons, MasterCard Labs.

Over the last few months, I have been asking a question to designers and innovation professionals — “how is innovation different from design?” Of course, everybody has an answer but what I noticed is that the answer is always varied. The field of design does not have a core and accepted definition of innovation or design. So right off the bat, let us see how some famous folks have defined these words over the years. I chose these as I feel they are most representative of my own definitions:

Ideation is defined as the process of creating, developing and communicating ideas. Ideas are visual, concrete or abstract base elements of a thought (Ben Jonson 2005).

Design is a plan for arranging [ideas] in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose (Charles Eames 1972).

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from a toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success. (Tim Brown, IDEO)

Invention is the creation of a product, method, or process that is better than a similar product, method, or process which exists today.

Innovation is the process of introducing this invention — product, service, or platform — into the world in such a way that it addresses a need and creates value to the company and customers.

Organizations and executives use the words ideation, design, design thinking, invention and innovation interchangeably and often without knowledge of the differences between them. It is important to define these terms because they are not the same nor are they interchangeable, they designate different parts of a process. Lack of definition leads to lack of tangible, measurable outcomes and severe conflation of innovation process. This results in lack of buy-in from senior executives, or worse yet, failure of innovation projects.

If innovation is not ideation, then what is it?

Fun fact: Google’s useful Ngram database of word use finds that not only is “innovation” suddenly a bigger deal than “invention,” but also total mentions have reached an all-time high

Innovation is invention or an idea applied

Think of innovation as the “flow of an idea”, it starts with an input (the ideas that go in), how it grows (how it flows through the organization), and results in an output (what comes out as impact). Very often, companies use metrics that are input heavy — number of patents or ideas, workforce trained in innovation, $ amount spent on R&D — to define innovation success. However, you cannot measure innovation based on just input. It has to be a sum of all parts — i.e input, flow and output. Invention in the form of a patent or idea of a new product, technology or a process is just the entry point into an innovation process and never a complete measure of innovativeness. In most cases, one invention may need to be combined with other inventions to create an ecosystem or a platform that provides customer value. This is why innovation is not invention, but invention applied.

Source: Will Woodham March 10, 2016 Blog

Case study: Apple’s iPod is a great example of taking an existing mp3 and hard drive technology/patents and integrating them into a successful product. Apple did not invent anything. Its innovation involved the creation of an easy-to-use ecosystem that unified music discovery, delivery, and device. In this case, Apple took one existing invention and created value for the customer by integrating it with other inventions.

Innovation starts with key insights that helps challenge, reframe and inspire an idea

For many executives, “innovation” is a buzzword that conjures an image of designers (often dressed in black turtlenecks) brainstorming in a room filled with Red Bulls, bowls of M&Ms, whiteboards, and loads of post-it notes. The expectation is that such a combination will somehow magically result in products that will transform the company. The truth is while you need ideas for products, most successful innovation starts with key insights derived from the customers or the field, or what I like to call the front stage. Insight can come from anywhere you have a front stage interaction with your customers — your field agents, your sales force, or even engineers working on project implementation. You can accelerate this process by bringing in design researchers. At IBM, Phil Gilbert claims that bringing design researchers on-board was the most “non-design” thing that they introduced. Design researchers play a different role from designers; they inform the work of design by understanding, unraveling, and visualizing the front stage. They don’t just provide a list of “needs” or “design directives,” they help articulate “unarticulated needs” to define the values that inform user decisions. Thus design research is about defining the basis by which companies can design something of value.

User observations led to Tide Pen

Case study: Tide consumers when asked what they wanted from their detergents always said bigger bottles and more potent solutions. However, when Tide engaged design researchers to understand user behavior, they observed that users would dip a toothbrush in detergent to scrub out stains before adding their clothes to the washing machine. Users did not talk about this in interviews or surveys, perhaps because they did not remember it or were embarrassed by their actions. Using design research, Tide was able to tap into unarticulated consumer behavior and solve a problem their competition did not even know existed! Tide To Go was born, a product line that contributes to the multi-billion dollar Tide brand and redefined Tide as a platform instead of a product. (Singh, 2015)

Innovation goes beyond product

When I mention innovation to a prospective customer, their immediate response is “Innovation is not our issue, our issue is getting funding and buy-in from leadership.” What they really mean is they have come up with a few products that are innovative and now they need leadership to take these products to the front stage. The issue, as Tom Kelly puts it is “a great product can be one important element in the formula for business success, but companies that want to succeed today need much more.” (Tom Kelly 2005). The most certain way for organizations to fail is to focus only on products.

Successful innovators, on the other hand, go beyond product and explore many other types of innovation:

Doblin’s Ten Types of Innovation Framework

Doblin’s framework of ten types of innovation is a great lens to see the different ways that innovation can cut across the organization. Even if you have a good product, you want to consciously de-emphasize your focus on product. This is a good way for organizations to expand their innovation repertoire, understand all the different ways you can design the front stage, and gain a competitive edge among others in the field.

The big opportunity for designers is to facilitate a shift in mindset, bring awareness across the organization of what innovation means and how it’s different from design. A well-defined process can help steer the idea from an initial phase to a desired outcome. Innovation practices can only be successful if organizations manage not just the input, but also the flow of process as well as the output.

In conclusion: Patents and ideas are the raw material of innovation. Design thinking is a lens that helps us challenge the basic premise of the idea while keeping people at the center of our thinking. Ideation and design are steps that define and make the idea real. The combination of these four things make up the innovation process which creates value and ultimately lead to impact. Mapping, defining, and implementing this process sets up a higher likelihood for innovation teams to succeed and provide real customer value and ROI to the company.

Innovation is not ideation’ is the first of the five insights to consider if you are responsible for understanding innovation flow at your organization. This is part 2 of a 6 part series that begins with my first article “Innovation is a problem of FLOW, not lack of ideas”. In the next article, I will elaborate on how innovation goes beyond new product development. Please follow my stories on Medium. If you have comments, please leave them below or email me directly at



Khoj Lab Founder & Innovation Catalyst | Leader, Driver, Promoter, Harmonizer |

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Shilpi Kumar

Khoj Lab Founder & Innovation Catalyst | Leader, Driver, Promoter, Harmonizer |