Innovation is a word that has seen heavy use for a long time. In the many uses of the word innovation, the term has been ascribed an equally wide range of meanings. At one end of the spectrum are definitions that suggest that anything that deviates from the norm can be construed as an innovation. One adage holds, “if it’s new to me, it is new.” However, definitions of this sort conflate the terms “change” and “innovation”. At the other end of the spectrum, some definitions provide a clear separation between evolutionary and discontinuous change. In narrower definitions, innovation is a subset of change. In software development, business or even–more broadly–life, change is inevitable and continuous while innovation is not inevitable and far more abrupt. In practical terms, change and innovation often differ in a number of critical attributes.
- Current State Knowledge Requirements: Change efforts require establishing a timeframe and the knowledge of the environment that will be impacted before and after the change. Understanding both states allows us to determine whether the change effort was successful. For example, we can assess the change in a software program by comparing two versions of the code. Innovation does not require knowledge of the starting point because the starting point did not previously exist. The introduction of COBOL was an innovation: one day COBOL did not exist, and then–BOOM–it existed. The lack of a past that provides context for a change is a strong identifier that something is an innovation
- Predictability: Change is often relatively predictable, often building from the past towards the future. Consider the evolution of Ruby since its public release in 1995 (version .95) to its most recent release in April 2016 (version 2.3.1), or the change in processing power predicted by Moore’s Law. Innovation is far less predictable because it is less anchored to a current state.
Why do we care? The focus of much online discussion is on the need for innovation. Innovation is important for the economy and for individual firms. Innovation rearranges the playing field and can disrupt whole industries. Uber is an oft-cited innovative business model innovation that has yielded creative destruction. At the risk of calling forth the trolls, I would suggest that Lyft, meanwhile, is more reflective of change than discontinuous innovation. Innovation is important. However, managing and directing change are important too, because, in the end, the only things we can count on are death, taxes, and change.