What is Innovation?

Murray Berghan

Is it invention, creativity, entrepreneurship, or something else?

Innovation. This buzzword is all too often thrown around business meetings, forums, and conferences, accompanied by only the vaguest sense of definition. Certainly, people tend to associate the act of innovating with pushing boundaries, taking risks, striving towards the new and novel, but in truth, these concepts are only pieces of what innovation is, not the whole picture. What then, is innovation really?

Many definitions have been posed over the years, with variations springing up depending on the industry of origin or the predominant philosophy of the time. An early, and popular, definition was provided by political science professor Victor Thomas in his 1965 article published in the Administrative Science Quarterly, in which he wrote, “Innovation is the generation, acceptance, and implementation of new ideas, processes products, or services.”1

In recent years, other more nuanced definitions have been offered. A 2009 review published in Management Decision sought to generate a cohesive definition of innovation that was applicable across varied disciplines. To accomplish this, researchers cataloged over 60 different definitions posed throughout the 1900s and early 2000s, analyzing their commonalities and differences. The culmination of their work lead to the following definition: “Innovation is the multi-stage process whereby organizations transform ideas into new/improved products, services, or processes in order to advance, compete and differentiate themselves successfully in their marketplace.”2

While both interpretations of innovation are valuable, they ultimately fail to capture something vital to the innovative process: innovation cannot succeed without leaving the traditional behind. David Kelley’s IDEO, a globally recognized powerhouse of innovation, is founded on this very concept. In a 2009 article published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, IDEO challenges other companies to reconsider how they approach innovation, writing, “Divergent thinking is the route, not the obstacle, to innovation.”3

Harnessing divergent thinking to spur innovation has proven effective, and not just at IDEO. Murray Berghan from Sensitive Group, the owners of Make Communications and Make Innovation, are themselves a case study in innovative success. By employing strategy paired with a heavy dose of creativity, this top-notch team has helped many non-profits, NGO’s and social enterprises achieve greater results in their fields. Make even won the Australian Marketing Institute’s Marketing Program of the Year award for their work on Young care, definitively proving divergent thinking gets business results.

Perhaps the idea of bucking the traditional as these two companies believe seems obvious in hindsight, but the practical application of leaving what is comfortable can be easier said than done. Corporations and non-profits alike feel the pull to stick with what’s known, planned carefully, and can be implemented slowly. After all, real money, jobs, and goods/services are on the line. But while innovation can be a messy process, it’s something that’s needed too. Even objectively good ideas and business models can use refining.

Non-profits may not historically have regarded innovation as a hallmark of their business models but leaving behind traditional modes of service to think outside the box and develop increasingly people-centric, innovative solutions can only better the communities they desire to help. If this philosophy has helped businesses like David Kelley’s IDEO and Murray Berghan’s Make Innovation serve non-profits well, as outside consultants, why not bring this way of thinking into the heart of the organizations too?


  1. Thompson VA. Bureaucracy and innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly [Internet]. 1965 [cited 2022 February 2];10(1):1–20. Available from: https://doi.org/10.2307/2391646.
  2. Baregheh A, Rowley J, Sambrook S. Towards a multidisciplinary definition of innovation. Management Decision [Internet]. 2009 [cited 2022 February 2];47(8):1323-39. Available from: 10.1108/00251740910984578.
  3. Wyatt J, Brown T. Design thinking for social innovation. Stanford Social Innovation Review [Internet]. 2009 [cited 2022 February 2];8(1):31–35. Available from: https://doi.org/10.48558/58Z7-3J85.