Your definition of innovation depends on your generation.
The Silent Generation went to work right after World War II when innovation included things like penicillin, radar, rockets and rubber. These products were developed in labs. After the war, companies kept on funding their Research and Development (R&D) labs and the engineers and scientists who worked there. For Silents, innovation came from the lab, and the lab was separate from the rest of the company. Coming up with new ideas was the job of a few specific people.
Boomers followed Silents into the workplace and continued to consider innovation the work of a few. Most Boomer-era innovations were tangible—the artificial heart, for example, cassette and video tapes and, most of all, the technology that led to the moon landing. Idealistic, visionary Boomers saw innovation as things that made the world better—but then the economy changed.
During the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the market went stagnant and inflation soared. The ivory tower of R&D suddenly seemed very expensive. The emphasis shifted from discovering things to making things the company could sell, and innovation became distinctly market driven.
Generation X saw mostly market failures. Globalization had begun. The dot.com bubble burst. Xers witnessed Enron and Worldcom. As companies failed, consolidation became the rule, and innovation was tied to cost reduction. By definition, innovation meant making things more efficient and integrating processes so that they took less time.
That’s why Gen X-era innovation includes barcodes, scanners, just in time supply lines and the world wide web. Innovation had become a "how," not a "what." Consider the icons of the era—Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Both created companies that made computers, but even more important than the products were their operating systems.
All of which brings us to the Millennials. Collaborative Ms are completely democratic about innovation. Forget the lab. Contributing ideas is everybody's job. Wikipedia is a perfect example. Everybody contributes, edit and tweaks. Meanwhile, Kickstarter presents ideas from anyone who wants to create a proposal. The monster of innovation, Google, taps all its employees continually with Google cafes, weekly all-hands meetings called TGIF, and company-wide FIXIT sessions.
Next up will be Gen Edge. Based on what we’re seeing so far, their idea of innovation is likely to be pragmatic and hands-on.
In the meantime, which definition or style of innovation are you most comfortable with? They all work, but what works best for you? Does your organization offer paths for all the types of innovation?
President of Generational Edge, Amy Lynch has written and spoken about the generations for 15 years. She has spoken to 100s of groups from MTV and Comcast to Boeing, J&J and the staff of the U.S. Senate. Amy has been quoted in national publications, including The Washington Post, USA Today, Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune and NBC Evening News, among others.