An Innovation Dictionary: a guide for the creativity perplexed

David Dabscheck
March 26, 2024
15 min

In 1721 Nathan Bailey published one of the earliest English dictionaries, where he defined “cat” as, “a creature well known,” and “strawberry” as, “a well known fruit.” Today, “innovation” is so frequently said that it too might be well known, but that does not mean we know it well. Other related buzzwords—like “lean startup” and “design thinking”—are also confusingly flung about by the innovation fashionable. This could be one of the few instances where the wisdom of the classic high school film The Breakfast Club doesn’t apply—we need the simplest terms, the most convenient definitions.

In the interests of resolving these definitional deficiencies, following is a quick guide:

Brainstorming: While it has become a catchall word for any attempt to generate ideas, it originated as a specific technique that Alex Osborn outlined in his 1953 book Applied Imagination. Research on the effectiveness of Osborn’s approach is mixed, as its ability to boost group cohesion can mask other weaknesses in actually producing creative ideas. For most organizations this term refers to the unfortunate practice of expecting original ideas to emerge during a supposedly relaxed team discussion; the likelihood of which is somewhere between almost never and never. If you want to do it right follow Keith Sawyer’s advice in Group Genius. Other constructive approaches to idea generation include Michael Michalko’s Thinkertoys, Steve Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and William Duggan’s Strategic Intuition.

Challenge: A problem, unmet need or opportunity to innovate around.  

Creativity: The ability to generate novel and useful solutions and thus an essential precursor to innovation. Yet from the belief that creativity is located in the right-side of our brains to the notion of the “lone genius,” creativity carries with it more myths and half-truths than our current presidential election cycle. See the work of Teresa Amabile, Keith Sawyer and Gerard Puccio for greater insight.    

Design Thinking: Is both a philosophy and a collection of methods to better understand what people want and need. Design thinking has almost reached the level of fervor around the word innovation itself and been enthusiastically embraced by organizations from Nordstrom to the United States Office of Personnel Management. Like many seemingly overnight successes, however, design thinking has a long history. Its roots can be traced to Herbert Simon’s 1969 Sciences of the Artificial and Donald Schon’s 1983 The Reflective Practitioner, which first argued that design approaches to problem solving were different and as powerful as more traditional analytical methods. See companies such as IDEO and frog and educational institutions such as Stanford’s and Parsons’ School of Design Strategies.

Failure: An often valuable and necessary step in the process of learning what works about a creative idea to transform it into a useful innovation. To overcome our cognitive distaste for failure you can adopt what Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford calls a growth mindset and take Seattle improviser Matt Smith’s failure bow. Better yet, banish the word altogether and call it “experimentation for learning.”

How Might We… (also known as HMW): Credited to the business consultant Min Basadur, this phrase is used to introduce innovation challenges. Each word was carefully chosen to help teams think more collaboratively and expansively. For anyone who doubts the power of language, consider the difference in team dynamics when you ask, “How might we do X” versus, “You should do Y.”    

Innovation: Can be thought of as executed creativity and reduced to its two constituent parts: something new + something useful. That’s it. It is not a synonym for technology, elegance or goodness. The first part without the second is mere novelty, and the second part without the first is status quo efficiency. While we usually think of innovation to describe products and services, it can as easily apply to new business models, processes, or methodologies.

Lean Startup: The Christopher Columbus approach to business and product development: valuable discoveries will only be made by leaving Spain (your office) and seeking out the New World (potential customers) in a jury rigged ship (the minimum viable product). What you learn during your voyage allows you to rebuild a better and faster ship until you reach land suitable for colonization (scaling your business). A popular tool to map the journey is Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas. This approach arose originally in Silicon Valley and is closely associated with Eric Reis, although Steve Blank and Ash Maurya also feature in the pantheon of famous writer-explorers.

Minimal Viable Product (also known as an MVP): Is the most basic version of the product you intend to make to allow for quicker customer feedback. Rookie mistake: minimal does not mean bad.

Pivot: When you realize your current product or business will not generate anything beyond additional ramen dinners and decide to move in a different, more promising, direction. A pivot is kissing cousins with failure, but considering that Twitter started as a side project of a podcast startup and Pinterest originally was a shopping app, it can also be your best friend.

Risk Aversion & Ambiguity Aversion:  While we might blame incompetent bosses, short-term metrics and burdensome regulations for hindering innovation, a main culprit is inescapable—our minds. We are hardwired to generally dislike risk and absolutely abhor ambiguity. This made perfect sense for our cave dwelling ancestors to avoid becoming a predator’s lunch. But it is much less helpful in today’s world where it causes an instinctive resistance to organizational innovation, even when our competitors are eating our lunch. Kodak, Nokia and countless other examples of how once dominant companies struggled to change course demonstrate the tremendous influence of our cognitive biases. See Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, the Ellsberg Paradox and numerous folk sayings from “better the devil you know” to “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Sprints, Bootcamps and Labs (can be preceded by the word “design”): Used instead of the word “workshop” to signal an attempt to provide a more interactive learning experience. Expect improv and colored pipe cleaners.  

Storytelling: Is simply telling stories, but also how we instinctively give meaning to the messy and not so simple world around us. Since innovation will inevitably add to this disorder and hence others’ psychological discomfort, effective storytelling is crucial for successful innovation. To understand why storytelling is fundamental to the human experience (not to mention explaining why Hamlet, The Godfather and Being John Malkovich all share the same structure) see Into the Woods by John Yorke.

Triz: Is a Russian acronym for “Theory of Inventive Problem Solving” and was developed in the 1940s by Soviet inventor Genrich Altshuller and colleagues. Altshuller studied thousands of patents and argued that there were certain universal patterns underlying most inventions. Triz is his methodical approach to replicate these patterns. While Stalin sent Altshuller to a gulag, triz has long outlived the Soviet Union through the work of the Altshuller Institute and later business adaptations, such as Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT).

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An Innovation Dictionary: a guide for the creativity perplexed