SOCIETY | Apr 26, 2018

Solution innovation or meaning innovation?

What are the ingredients needed to create innovations?

Many entrepreneurs search for their entire careers for that one big idea
that will make the difference between incredible success and frustrating mediocrity.
Few ever find it and many that do end up crashing and burning along the way.
The truth is that innovation is never a single event and the “eureka moment” is largely a myth…
That’s a process, not a moment. That’s why instead of trying to come up with a brilliant idea,
it’s best to start by finding a good problem…

Greg Satell – Innovate – Aug 6, 2017

This quote effectively expresses the “sense” of innovation and the ways it can manifest itself; for an innovation to be defined as such it must express something new, an improvement and above all it must be “implemented”. Whether it is a product/ service innovation, or involves a business model, two different innovation paths can be identified, which distinguish between solution innovation and meaning innovation.

Solution innovation or meaning innovation?

A solution innovation manifests itself via an improvement of something that already exists and is therefore the result of a process that, originating with the “choice” of one among several possible different alternatives available, allows the introduction of a variation in what was an “already accepted practice” (innovating “doing what we already do, but better”); a meaning innovation on the other hand, stems from a total paradigm shift that leads to the introduction and diffusion of something that is “new compared to previous ideas”; “unique with respect to current innovations” and which allows us “to do” things that we have not done before (innovating “doing what we did not do before”).

The direction of the processes underlying each type of innovation is diametrically opposite: in the case of a solution innovation, with the “creative problem solving” approach, the focus is on understanding customers’ needs by observing their behavior and then getting an ideation process in motion that generates possible solutions, all aimed at improving performance. The process just described is known as the “outside in” approach.

On the contrary, the  inside out  approach starts with critical-thinking and the search for a new interpretation of things and their meaning, aiming to give consumers something (product/ service/ business model) absolutely new, attractive and generated by an embodiment on the part of those who are promoting the innovation. In this case we are describing the “visionary interpretation” approach, namely that which, beginning with the understanding of implicit dynamics not expressed in socio-cultural models, generates new meanings and new languages.

Recent scientific literature contains an extensive debate on the use of a Human Centered Design approach: this philosophy assumes that innovation starts from a proximity to users to observe their activities and then research the technologies or methods that, through an iterative prototyping and testing cycle, achieves satisfaction of these needs. It can be said that Human-Centered Design is an important technique for incremental innovation but is “weak” in creating radical innovation.

There is no doubt that technological evolution enables radical innovation, but the latter can also originate from a “change of meaning” confirming that design is a process aimed at giving “a sense to things”.

When is there a change in meaning?

Apple and Swatch are well-known examples of newly marketed meaning innovations: both used technology to radically change the meaning of the category of their products. The creation of first, the iPod and then the iTunes Store, enabled people to search for and buy music, organizing it into a personal playlist; similarly, Swatch has transformed the watch by marketing it as a “fashion” item at affordable prices. These companies have not introduced a new technology (in fact the iPod was introduced to the market in 2001, four years after the first MP3 player) but they have given it a new, more meaningful form.

An example of how successful innovation can be aimed at satisfying emotional, non-functional needs can be found in the work of  Ettore Sottsass who, via his feeling for shapes born of emotional and cognitive processes rather than complying with fixed laws, has created innovations and exceeded the design limits at the heart of his work. It is the clear expression of the theory of thought according to which meaning innovation is based on Critical Sense and Research.

How does meaning innovation originate?

It is precisely by following a path of profound criticism, aimed at rethinking one’s own interpretation of both things and myths consolidated over time, so that the pathways of innovation can lead to an improvement in our presence in the world, with the awareness that being critical does not imply being negative but rather an in-depth examination of the meaning of things, comparing our interpretations with those of others.

There is a final, important and radically contrasting aspect concerning those who innovate: recent theories state that innovation should come from others, from the outside (see, for example crowdfunding, crowdsourcing activities) but for the innovation of meaning these principles are not applicable. The search for a new vision of things cannot be outsourced but must be internalized within the task of a leader: those who want to “innovate” must necessarily be “within the context”; must be involved in the first person to internalize the search for a new meaning (embodiment). This is the spirit that animated Steve Jobs in the realization of his successful ideas.

Take up the challenge

This is the required ingredient in creating a vision and being a leader capable of “generating  innovation”, animated by curiosity to promote research, having the creativity to generate ideas, to be a visionary in generating concepts and above all to have the  managerial skill to support the entire process of implementing a successful innovation strategy.