Definitions for innovation, mission innovation, and innovation theater


Definitions for innovation, mission innovation, and innovation theater.

By Katy Person | Fall 2022

No one has a monopoly on the meaning of innovation. We all speak these different languages overladen with jargon. It can be quite useful to extrapolate meaning from the way an organization defines key terms.

We (at MIT MIx) spent several months thinking about definitions. You might be able to infer something about our organization if you didn’t already know something about it…that we’re part of a university where inventions and intellectual property are a few of our key metrics.

The definition of innovation.

In “Leading Innovation: Identifying Challenges and Opportunities using MIT’s Three Lenses”, MIT Professor Fiona Murray and Dr. Phil Budden describe innovation as “an observable phenomenon” and offer “practical approaches striving to build effective innovative behaviors as well as long run capabilities for innovation in their organizations.”

Innovation is the process of taking an idea from inception to impact. 

In this definition, Innovation is exclusively a process and not a technology or solution. The definition of ‘innovation’, one as a ‘process’, is useful and negates the use of the term ‘innovation’ in place of an emerging technical field or technique, such as artificial intelligence, quantum science, CRISPR, etc. 

Innovation is exclusively a process that marries a problem with a solution to create impact.

In a number of activities I have heard this phrase – ‘That is just a solution looking for a problem.’

Maybe in certain environments that pertains, but generally we understand that the problem and solution are weighted equally. 

The definition of mission innovation.

Mission Innovation is a subcategory of ‘innovation’ in which the impact is restricted to mission impact.

  The bottom line cannot play an outsized role.

Instead [a non-corporate finance] mission impact is the predominant metric of success. Examples of organizations that conduct mission innovation include government organizations, non-profits, NGOs, social impact companies, etc.

The definition of innovation theater. 

We consider innovation theater as certain activities that relate to the science of innovation but these activities are perceived as not having direct impact on the mission or bottom line.

The colloquialism ‘Innovation theater’ has such a negative connotation. But when evaluated in an objective manner, the activities we associate with ‘innovation theater’ have benefits for those conducting, sponsoring, and hosting it. Those benefits may include:

  • Bringing awareness to employees and managers that a fresh lens is probably needed for certain kinds of problems
  • Keeping innovation at the forefront of managers’ minds.

But the negative connotation for innovation theater exists for a reason. Some of those reasons may be that:

  • Executives may implement such a program to ‘check the box’
  • Leaders and employees may implement programs with the earnest intent to innovate but (some managers) are ultimately unlikely to change business as usual.

As I mentioned earlier, in our defintion, innovation is not exclusive to technology. What it also isn’t is agile. Agile isn’t wrong. But it’s not the same. It’s incomplete.

I periodically see organizations running ‘innovation bootcamps’ that offer a problem for participants to solve. I know this as a “hackathon”, but I recognize that it means different things to different people. The nature of an ‘innovation bootcamp’ is that it is limited by the time, humans, and resources – so the complexity of the problem statement must match these constraints – whether by defining a problem that is limited in complexity, scope, technique, etc. For more transformative innovation, a hackathon in that style will only accomplish an initial understanding of a more complex problem.