I was having a first meeting with a client’s innovation team the other day and someone asked if there is a real difference between an innovation and an improvement.  It turns out that the team had a pipeline of ideas that they had been working on, but some doubt had crept into their work – “…are we working on innovations or improvements…are we really making a difference?”  This doubt had also led them to ask another related question – “…if we do enough continuous improvement, will this in due course become innovation?”

Something that had fuelled the team’s doubt came from their approach to sorting and selecting ideas.  Like many teams we’ve worked with, one way they used to cut the idea bank was to make some rough assessments of ideas based on potential impact and ease of development.  Also like many teams, almost all of the ideas that made the cut in their work to date – those that were selected for development – appeared in the “High impact and easy to do” category – the “low-hanging fruit”.  They did have a few ideas that were labelled as “High impact and hard to do”, but none of these attracted much support when choosing ideas to progress.

This is a question that actually arises quite often.  Is improvement and innovation really just the same thing?  Is it a matter of scale or impact?  Is it about timeframe to deliver or investment required?  Does it matter?  In our view there is a difference, and it’s not just semantics or academic.  Making the distinction clear can reap big rewards for your organisation.

The main practical distinction in our view is in the degree of uncertainty surrounding the idea in question.  The more uncertainty, the more likely it is that you are dealing with a potential innovation.  If you basically know what to do to implement an idea, then you are probably dealing with an improvement.  Taking this approach makes it clear that innovation is really all about learning.  The challenge then becomes about how you can accelerate your learning to assess and develop ideas.  The “hard to do” assessment mentioned above can then be relabelled as “more we don’t know”.  Teams and organisations that are most successful with innovation, then, are those that develop their ability to learn.

But…even if you think this distinction makes sense, does this make any difference to what your team would do when faced with the same choices?  Would you be any more likely to choose ideas for development that are in the “High impact and more to learn” category?  Well, in our experience, some interesting things happen when teams make the switch in thinking – starting to view innovation as largely a learning challenge.  Once teams understand that learning is the key, then they seem to become more inclined to consider and select “more to learn” type ideas.  Characterising the uncertainty as a current lack of knowledge somehow seems to make ideas of that kind less intimidating.

We’ve also noticed that once teams have made this switch, they start to rate the impact of ideas differently.  Far fewer “easy to do” (now “less to learn”) ideas make the highest “impact” rating.  It seems that before teams make this switch, they are more likely to conflate “easy to do” with “high impact” and hence ensure that the highest impact rankings are associated with easy to do ideas.  That way, they don’t have to face up to the prospect that what they really would love to achieve – a breakthrough idea for customers or other stakeholders – will probably require much more effort.

So…what kind of ideas are your innovation teams working on?