Novelty is not Innovation by Itself

by Tim Kastelle

When I went to visit Neil Kay last year, we talked a bit about novelty. He said that the way that we frame PhD research is all wrong – that it is a mistake when we tell people that they need to make a novel contribution to knowledge. Instead, we agreed that people should be looking to advance knowledge, which is a bit different than making a novel contribution.

For example, you could write an economics PhD connecting the theories of Alfred Marshall with those of Justin Bieber. That would certainly be novel (at least, I hope there aren’t too many people trying that), but would it materially advance knowledge? Probably not.

Here’s another example – what do you think this is? I’ll give you a hint – it’s a symbol.

Novelty is not Innovation by ItselfIt was on a door at the conference venue that I was in at the end of last week. Throughout the two days that we were there, we had a stream of people walk up, look at the symbol, pause, continue walking down the hall and then compare the symbol with those on two more doors. The women then shrugged and walked into the last door, while the men returned to this one.

Somehow, that’s the symbol for “Men.”

This is an example of bad innovation.

It’s a novel way to indicate which room the men should use, but it’s not a good way to do so.

There are a few innovation lessons contained in the cryptic symbol:

  1. Novel ideas are not automatically innovative. Just because an idea is completely new, it doesn’t mean that it’s good. Like the Marshall plus Bieber PhD, novelty doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of the idea. You need more than novelty – in addition:
  2. Innovations need to create value. The weird door sign creates negative value – it confuses people, it may lead to potentially embarrassing mix-ups, and it wastes time. All of these are bad outcomes. To innovate, we need to execute new ideas to create value. To create value, we must remember that:
  3. Our innovations have to fit within the existing economic network. As Jeffrey Phillips pointed out in our discussion of flying cars, that is a technology that will only work when there are a large number of related technical and social innovations in place that are required to support flying cars.

The problem with the “Men” symbol is that it doesn’t connect to any normally accepted method for communicating that this is the room into which men should go. This lack of specificity might be find in the signage for a trendy new nightclub, where part of the mystique comes from being difficult to find. I don’t know about you, but I prefer toilets without that mystique…

When you’re thinking up ideas, it is critical to think about how executing these ideas might create value. If they don’t create clear value for people, then it might be smart to spend your limited resources executing a different idea that does.


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Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

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