Removing poetry from innovation

What is innovation?

Florian Sauter

5 minute read

I had the chance to meet Bill O’Connor in San Francisco recently. He did a highly inspiratinoal talk about Innovation (of which you can find an a bit less inspiring version also on YouTube).

What is innovation?

So Bill’s talk was all about innovation. But what is innovation really? He comes up with the following definition:

Innovation is “something new or different, successfully brought into the world, creating significant impact”

Innovation poetry

The notion I really liked about his talk is that he said there’s a log of “innovation poetry” out there. Meaning that there is a lot of people talking about innovation, working on all kinds of theory and playing all kinds of “theatre” in companies around innovation rituals and processes. But in the end, that does not have much to do with innovation as long as there is not action, no results, no things that really have an impact on the world.

This gets especially clear in big corporations: It’s hip to surround oneself with funky startup people or go to where innovation takes place and open up a Sillion Valley innovation office with the hope that the innovation fairydust will magically transfer and turn the company into an innovative place. Sorry, but that’s not how it works.

How innovation really works

Bill took a refreshingly different approach to get a grip on innovation: he analyzed with his team about a thousand of mankind’s greatest innovations in all fields, spanning from the early stone age tool over jazz music, the printing press up to the Internet, the iPhone and Facebook. He and his team extracted patterns from those innovations and how they came about. Derived from those observations, Bill came up with a set of fundamental questions that help facilitate the thinking around how to come up with truely new or different ideas and how to put them to practice.

Practical advice

So how do we get to those truely great ideas and how do we turn those ideas into innovations?

It all boils down to asking the right questions - Bill calls them the “innovation questions.” Great questions lead to great innovation ideas - but keep in mind that not every innovation idea becomes an innovation.

To get started, bill suggests a five step process:

1) Mapping out the current environment: This step is about bringing to your mind in what environment or situation you are. This might include competitors, customers, market trends, values and more.

2) Define a number of Innovation targets: This is about defining wild and ambitious target states you want to end up being in. Defining 2-5 of them is a good start. The more wild and ambitious they are, the better.

3) Aks the 7 Innovation questions: Now, for each of those innovation targets, ask Bill’s 7 innovation questions and collect answers to them in a brainstorming style. More on the questions down below.

4) Prioritize the resulting ideas: Now it comes to sorting and prioritizing those ideas. Bill suggests to place them on a chart along 2 scales: “wildness” (from already known to totally new) and feasibility (totally impractical to easily doable with todays technology and funding).

Obviously, the most interesting ideas are the ones sitting in the top right corner, being totally new and still doable. But also the ones less wild or less practical should not be discarded: maybe there’s a way to make them more wild or more practical in a gradual way?

5) Take action: To make an innovation idea more than an idea, at some point there needs to be a clear way to take action. For this phase, Bill has some suggestions as well. He proposes to always start with what he calls a brilliant description of the innovation/product. It has some parallels with the virtual press release technique. It’s about being crisp and clear about the value proposition of what should be built and create alignment amongst everyone where to go. The second step is a thought experiment that should focus only on the positive questions of “how can we make this real”? In contract to that, in a third step he proposes to do a thread assessment to make sure to be aware of “who is going to hate this?”. With those ingredients, it’s time to prepare a poper pitch for “boss approval” and then iterate the way to a product to finally launch it (and keep innovating on it, if course).

The 7 innovation questions

Core of Bill’s work is coming up with the right questions. Here are the 7 main questions he extracted:

  • Look: What can we look at in a new way, or from a new perspective?
  • Use: What could we use in a new way, or for the first time?
  • Move: What could we move, changing its position in time or space?
  • Interconnect: What could we interconnect in a different way, or for the first time?
  • Alter: What could we alter or change, in terms of design and performance?
  • Make: What could we make, creating something truely new?
  • Imagine: What could we imagine to create a great experience for someone?

Some examples from his talk: A thing that could be looked at in a new way is e.g “fire”. Fire has for a long time been a dangerous thing that brought horror and destruction. But it cloud also be seen as something useful as e.g. a weapon or means to cook.

More inspiration needed? As an extension to those 7 questions, Bill has 7 more sub-questions to every one of them, making it 49. Too much for a single brainstorming session, but additional inspiration if needed.


The most important take-away from Bill’s talk for me is, that we should try to get away from accidential innovation (“the idea that struck me while being in the shower”) to more concious innovation that can be planned and facilitated with the techniques he mentions. Can we maybe even measure innovation by an innovation metric that could contain the number of ideas that are generated, prioritized and acted on?