The elusivity of innovation

Our eyes on the prize, we may miss opportunities that are right in front of us

By Laura Haight
Innovation. As a word, it is grossly overused joining my 2017 “tired of” list that includes “hand-crafted”, “impactful” and “transformative”. As a function, it is misunderstood. As a business reality, it is elusive.

So what does it mean to be an innovative company and what does it take to get there?

We could start by getting on the same page about what innovation means. In 2016, Inc Magazine asked acknowledged innovatioån experts for a definition. They were all different: from having an idea to executing an idea to thinking differently. And everything in between,including “definitions aren’t important”.

I beg to disagree. If we can’t define it, we can’t “be” it. Or at least we won’t know if we “are” it. 

Here in South Carolina, you hear a lot about innovation. A search on for “innovative” jobs in the state produces a 2,700+-item list. They range from collections reps to marketing interns. If the job description doesn’t include the word, the company description surely does. 

Unfortunately, the message about how innovative we are doesn’t seem to be getting through to organizations that analyze that kind of thing. 

The 2017 annual report on innovation by Wallet Hub  lists us as 41st in the nation. That keeps us out of being the 10 worst, only because their analysis included the District of Columbia (#1). Our “human capital” rank was 36th. That factors in share of STEM professionals, science and engineering graduates, projected STEM job demand by 2020, AP exam participation, 8th grade math and science performance and scientific knowledge output. 

Being 36th there, probably helped our overall ranking after a pretty week showing on Innovation Environment where we rank 47th. Factors included the share of tech companies, R&D spending per capita, R&D compared to state GDP, Patents per capita, startup activity, tax climate, average Internet speed and access, venture capital funding, small business funding by SBA, and – my fave – drone friendly laws. 

All-in-all, it’s not a good report card. 

But the thing about bad report cards is that they give us something to work toward. As most successful people will tell admit: You don’t learn from success. 

And now I’m talking to you: small business owner. Innovation is not just a big business game. Any company of any size can embrace innovation and grow with it if you keep your expectations manageable.

For our purposes, we’ll define innovation as advancing and improving the way something is done. That’s probably a definition that aligns with all the companies on Indeed who say they are innovative. Not because they are constantly inventing something, but because they do something better or differently than their competitors. Because they evolve constantly, don’t rest on their successes, and are – and here’s a biggie – willing to risk a mistake on the way to a success.

Innovation does not have to be – although it often is – fueled by technology. But technology is often necessary to implement an innovation. Some of these tools can be embarrassingly basic and you may already have them. But what it cannot do without is curiosity. Curiosity is different from other skills in that everyone can have it and exercise it.

Curiosity is also something that can bubble up instead of dripping down. It may often be seen in the annoying questions of junior staffers that bring out your inner-W.C. Fields (“Get away from me kid, you bother me.”). Yet, the intuitive and possibly innovative junior staffer may have the best visualization into your business. The staffer has no idea how you’ve always done things or why. She is a completely impartial observer - at least for a while. Many companies push curiosity back into its box preferring to hear ideas from more established, experienced members of the team. But by the time, that curious junior staffer becomes more established, he may very well have learned to keep his out-of-box suggestions to himself. 

Admittedly curiosity alone can be annoying. I mean, why IS the sky blue? But when you couple curiosity with creativity, you get a simmering soup of ideas. Many will be unworkable, many will be unaffordable, and, because we so often think of innovation in grandiose terms, many may seem mundane. Creativity puts form to function, the creative sees a hammer and wonders if they can use it for something other than driving a nail. Often you might find your business has technology that can be deployed for something you didn’t originally consider it for to provide an innovative way of doing something. 

But curiosity and creativity can only take you so far. Some ideas will require capital. And that’s often where innovation dies. We want new ideas, we ask staff to come up with them, we may even publicly support them. But how often do we actually fund them? Creative staffers may tire of coming up with great ideas that never get implemented and find more fertile ground elsewhere. 

Often, though, the capital required is human. Can you task a staffer to this project, can you bring in a programmer, or get a contractor to help design or implement an idea? A major bar to innovation is often looking at the most expensive options rather than exploring some of the capabilities and capacity you may already have to bring to the job. 

Innovation is not the exclusive province of the Apples, BMWs, and Elon Musks of the world. Maybe your innovation efforts won’t change the world, disrupt markets, help drag S.C. out of the basement in rankings; but it can make your company quicker, smarter, and more competitive. 

Tell us about your innovation projects: How you identify them, develop them and the impact they’ve had on your business. Brag a little, help others at the same time. Reach me at, follow me on twitter @portfoliosc and facebook.