The Simple Definition of Innovation

By Josh Ford, Washington D.C.

In the quest for innovation, we trip ourselves up by tying innovation with complexity. We, myself definitely included, so often think that the next great thing is something that no one has even fully imagined. If we want to be innovative, we must be geniuses.

I disagree. My definition of true innovation is this: the process of making things simpler. When I think of being innovative, I think of taking big, complex things and making them easy to digest and attract by the consumer.

I think we at IBM have a real opportunity with Watson, an extremely complex “mechanical mind” to reach this level of true innovation. When I think of Watson and healthcare, he will be able to take millions and millions of data points and put them together to give doctors and medical professionals (and perhaps eventually patients) very simple stats/recommendations based on the data.

But let’s also look outside of IBM at some really innovative companies:

1) Most people would agree that Apple is one of the most innovative companies in the world. But what makes their iPhone so great? It’s intuitive and easy to use. I will never forget being in rural Ecuador a few years ago and seeing a 2-year-old girl play with my iPhone. While she had no idea what apps she was opening, she easily grasped that by poking on something she could make it open, by grabbing something, it would become bigger. She maneuvered the iPhone flawlessly without ever being exposed to one before (or any touchscreen device for that matter). How did she do this? Because the genius behind Apple’s products are that they are simple. Simple to use and learn.

2) What makes Uber (and Lyft and the others) so disruptive and well-liked?! It’s simple (no pun intended). This morning while en route to the client site, I called a traditional cab company and asked to reserve a cab an hour in advance. They told me that I had to book either for immediate pick-up or the day before for scheduled pickups. Frustrated, I declined their services and went with something simpler. Ten minutes before I was ready to leave for the airport, I picked up my cell phone, which is always attached to me, and touched a button on the screen. Within a few minutes, a car picked me up at my house (I didn’t have to tell anyone my address – it’s all based on GPS and Google Maps) and drove me to the airport and I jumped out and hurried through security. There was no need to give my credit card or sign a receipt. By the time I had entered the airport, I already had my receipt in my email inbox. It’s innovative because it’s simple. Uber takes tools that already exist and put them together to make my life easier.

One of the best artists of history (as well as a truly innovative thinker in other fields as well), Leonardo Da Vinci said it best: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

When I think of the best consultants and leaders I know, both personally and from afar, it is the people who are able to take complex subject matter and simply explain it to someone at a grade school level that are the best at what they do. For me, when I think of being innovative, I think of how we can make things simpler. How can we take what we already know, put it all together and make things easier?

This pursuit of simplicity is something that we must keep in the forefront both for IBM as its own company and also for our clients. It’s what the market demands and whether consumers consciously know it or not, it’s what we all want.

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