What is Innovation … for Systems?

Excerpted with permission from

“Being a Systems Innovator”

David Bray (Chapter Editor), Benn Konsynski, Joycelyn Streator, Goizueta Business School, 1300 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322

Innovation is the process of “making improvements by introducing something new” to a system. To be noteworthy, an innovation must be substantially different, not an insignificant change or adjustment. It is worth noting that innovation is more a verb than a noun in our context. Innovation is similar to the word evolution, which derives from the Latin root for staying “in motion.” Systems innovations often include an expectation of forward motion and improvement. To be worthwhile, innovations must be worth the cost of replacement, substitution, or upgrades of the existing order.

The term innovation may refer to both radical and incremental changes to products, processes, or services. The often unspoken goal of innovation is to solve a problem. Innovation is an important topic in the study of economics, business, technology, sociology, and engineering. Since innovations are a major driver of the economy, the factors that lead to innovation are also critical to government policymakers.
In an organizational context, innovations link to performance and growth through
improvements in efficiency, productivity, quality, competitive positioning, market share, etc. All organizations can innovate, including for example hospitals, universities, and local governments.

Rather than construct a narrow definition of innovation, it is useful to think of innovation as including, but not limited by, a few key dimensions. Successful innovations include these dimensions.

The first dimension is that of innovation form. Innovations manifest in many ways, but generally are either tangible or intangible. Tangible innovations result in new goods, services, or systems that you can physically touch. Examples include the introduction of new products or a style of architecture.

Intangible innovations include the creation of new services, processes, modes of operating, or thinking. Intangible innovations might introduce greater efficiency into an existing process or create an entirely new way of doing something. For example, an innovation could reduce the time required to manufacture a car. This intangible innovation might translate into greater profits for a car manufacturer.

The second dimension is that of innovation degree. Innovation degree compares a particular innovation to that of the status quo. In 1980, a researcher named John Hage introduced the concept of “radical” versus “incremental” innovation. An incremental innovation introduces an idea, process, or technological device that provides a slight improvement or causes minor change in a normal routine.

Sometimes the impact of incremental innovation may require only minor adjustments in the behavior, processes, or equipment associated with a system. A manufacturing facility upgrading to a new version of software that provides additional features to enhance existing operations is an example of an incremental innovation.

Conversely, radical innovations introduce an idea, process, or technological device that dramatically alters a current system. For example, if a manufacturing firm acquired a new technology that allowed the firm to completely redefine and streamline its production processes, then this new technology represents a radical innovation. Often radical innovations involve not only new technologies and processes, but also necessitate the creation of entirely new patterns of behaviors.


The paper is available in its entirety for free download here