How do you judge innovation? Experts offer their guidance.

Innovation is much sought after, but hard to define. This checklist can help set your vision apart.

By Poornima Apte, contributor

Before the arrival of motor vehicles, would the average customer have simply wished for a faster horse? Disruptive leaps from the familiar—a horse to a car—are the hallmarks of innovative thinking.

But innovation isn’t confined to bold strokes alone, say experts. It can also be found in incremental moves. How then does one truly judge innovation? Page Motes, head of global sustainability, and Justin Lyles (pictured above), senior vice president of experience design at Dell Technologies, weigh in.

Define what qualifies as innovation

There’s no one set of criteria that could apply to all innovation, Lyles says. “It can be very technical; it can be experiential innovation, innovation around business models; it can happen in many ways.”

Page Motes, Dell Technologies, head of Global Sustainability. Photo by Knox Photographics

It’s dangerous to define innovation too tightly, but it could be broadly explained as a new way of doing something that benefits the user or the planet, he continues “True innovation,” Motes adds, “makes lives easier or more impactful while adding value to society as a whole, even if in very small ways and over time.”

Rope in the experts

Is an idea that lowers the cost of production more or less innovative than one that delivers a new experience? To judge innovation across the board, bring in experts, Motes advises.

“Innovations in sustainability, for example, can be very nuanced, so having subject matter experts in topics such as climate change, human rights and more can add value by assessing risk and identifying areas where [innovation] might have unintended consequences,” she says. Innovation that helps one thing but hurts another isn’t really an innovation that’s worth pursuing.

Make it user-valued

According to Lyles, true innovation lies “in the benefit it brings to the end user.” It resonates with the user and improves their experience of the product in a fundamental way.

Justin Lyles in the design studio. Photo by Knox Photographics.

Dell tests its innovation ideas on different personas and different tasks for feedback and insights, he explains. Rooting innovation in empathy from the user’s point of view helps deliver perspectives on which products are truly groundbreaking. “With every single design in isolation, I have to understand who it is for, what problem it solves and how ingenious the solution is.”

Allow for leaps of faith

While user research is critical in designing innovative products, you still must make an intuitive leap of faith, Lyles says. Paradigm-shifting innovation does not often come from playing in safe sandboxes, but in leveraging user research as a springboard to think big. “Sometimes products don’t land when you leap off that cliff, but other times you leap and land in a new exciting place.”

Capture the extent of innovation

Judging the results of innovation often depends on the primary area of impact. True innovation in sustainability, for example, is “not just meant to address a singular pain point or need but to have a ripple effect on society,” Motes says. Case in point: An innovation in materials that helps decarbonize a product to meet customer goals also decreases overall carbon output.

Innovation can be radical, where you completely reboot the paradigm. Take the case of Post-It notes or Velcro, Lyles explains. “The world is forever changed by the simplicity and elegance of their problem-solving approach.”

Innovation can also occur in small increments that are still meaningful, Lyles continues. “We want to get those home runs in, but you don’t always hit a home run every time you’re at bat. Sometimes you get small, quick base hits.”

Discover Concept Luna, a sustainable design innovation by Dell Technologies.

Lead image of Justin Lyles, Dell Technologies, senior VP of experience design by Knox Photographics.