What Does it Mean to be Innovative?

Industry Advice Business

Society today lives in a state of constant evolution. Ongoing improvements in technology have resulted in the steady production of new products and services, while fast-changing trends among consumers have led existing brands to reinvent themselves, their products, and their processes on a consistent basis.

This process of improvement is known as innovation, and it is an aspect of business that has contributed to some of the biggest changes in our world over the past 20 years. 

At the most basic level, innovation includes the development of new products, processes, or business models that better fit the needs of a group of consumers. However, in reality, this definition just scrapes the surface of innovation’s potential.

“Innovation cuts across all sectors of life and all aspects of a company,” says Tucker Marion, chair of the entrepreneurship and innovation programs within Northeastern’s D’Amore McKim School of Business. For this reason, organizations—and even individuals who innovate effectively—have the potential to make an impact on the landscape of their industry, just by being willing to take risks and learn from their mistakes.

Learn More: The Importance of Innovation in Business

Read on to explore exactly what it means to be innovative in today’s society, including what common misconceptions exist about innovation and how you can improve your skills in this area.

Top 3 Common Misconceptions about Being Innovative

In order to understand what it means to be truly innovative, it’s first important to disprove some of the common fallacies that have been developed around innovativeness. Below we explore the top three most prevalent misconceptions on this topic and why they are untrue.

1. To be Innovative, You Must Create Something “New”

Though many believe that innovation is rooted solely in the process of developing something brand new from scratch, Marion explains that the actual key to innovation is not newness—it’s timing. “People get stuck on the fact that innovation has to be ‘new;’ new technology, a new design, your next-generation iPhone, or something along those lines,” he says. “That’s certainly a part of it…but innovation can often be more about timing than anything else.”

For example, the use of small teams to accomplish large tasks is something that businesses have known to be effective for years. However, a company that chooses to switch up the way they run their teams by breaking them down into smaller groups for the first time is still considered to be making an innovative change in their workplace, even though the concept of doing so is far from novel. 

Download Our Free Guide to Introducing Innovation into Your Organization

Why innovation matters and the steps you can take to make a meaningful impact on your current company.


When it comes to innovation that centers around technology, many hold the false assumption that the products we consider innovative today couldn’t have existed without current advances in technology. For example, someone may think that the capability to FaceTime on an iPhone was introduced in 2010 because that was when technology had finally been developed to allow for it. However, the reality is that the first modern, commercially available videophone technology was actually utilized by AT&T in 1970. “It was just the wrong place [and] the wrong time for this product,” Marion says. “Only about 60 or 70 people globally bought their phone service, but the technology was there. It was just extremely expensive and limited by hardware constraints at the time.”

However, even AT&T wasn’t even the first to take a stab at videophone technology. “Germany in the 1930’s experimented with video phones, [too, though] most people don’t realize that,” he says, emphasizing that this proves “innovation doesn’t necessarily have to be new; it just has to be done at the right time, and at the right cost and accessibility.

2. Failure Negatively Impacts Innovation 

Experimentation is a crucial factor in innovation, and when people or companies experiment, it naturally means they are running a risk of failure. Despite the fact that failure has a negative connotation, innovative people know that a failed experiment equates to success in many ways.

“Failure in an experimental testing process is actually really important,” Marion says, “because when companies or individuals fail during innovation, they actually are offered a rare opportunity to see what didn’t work and use that insight to regroup and move forward more successfully in the future.”

One example of an incredibly impactful failure occurred in 2005 when Motorola and Apple teamed up to create “The Rockr,” a phone that played music. “It was a terrible failure, but combining different features and functionality onto a phone—including music—is what made the iPhone as successful as it was when it was introduced only two years later,” Marion says. Had Apple not been willing to risk failure with “The Rockr,” they never would have learned what they needed to from that experiment, and may not have come to release the product the corporation is arguably most known for today.

3. The Ability to be Innovative is Something You’re Born With

While organizations across industries strive to be innovative, some find repeated success while others never do. This is simply the reality of a process that relies so much on factors like timing, market need, and internal talent. However, this pattern has led some individuals to believe that the ability to be innovative is something you just have rather than something you can work toward.

“Some people think innovation is like black magic,” Marion says. “[They think] that there are some companies where people have it, and some where people don’t—but I actually disagree with that strongly.”

Microsoft, for example, was painted as being the opposite of innovative for a very long time—a reputation mitigated strongly by Apple, who tried to establish their own brand in the technology market by developing ad campaigns which represented Windows operating systems as “old fashioned” and “unoriginal.” These campaigns even went so far as to have a middle-aged, dorky-looking man portray Microsoft in their commercials, opposite a cool, twentysomething guy who was associated with Apple. This campaign was meant to solidify the idea that Microsoft couldn’t “keep up with the times,” thus making Apple appear like the trendier option. 

Today, however, Microsoft has proven itself to be one of the most innovative brands on the market and is now, “in many ways, [an] even more innovative company than Apple is,” Marion says.

Primarily, Marion credits this shift to the tech company’s “hard work, change management, and its overall change in methodology and skills.” Specifically, this includes their expansion into new markets, the development of more effective business processes and services, and even the invention of physical products that, 20 years ago, they never would have been in a position to release.

Marion finds that Microsoft is a perfect example of an organization which may not have started with impressive skills in innovation, but that worked hard to improve for the good of their brand. This, he believes, is the key to innovation: 

Innovation is a skill that can be taught. It can be worked on, enhanced, and, like exercise, the more you do it the better you’ll get. —Professor Tucker Marion Click To Tweet

What Does it Mean to be Innovative?

While Marion says individuals should feel motivated to hone their innovation skills through training, he also acknowledges that a few common qualities exist among those who have already embraced innovation in their lives and workplaces. Below we explore six common qualities that effective innovators share.

1. They Think Outside of the Box

To make positive changes to the landscape of an organization or industry through innovation, professionals must be willing to push past the confines of expectation. In fact, Marion considers “the ability to release creativity within an organization and be exposed to new sources of ideas [while] helping employees develop new ideas themselves” vital in the process of breaking down existing barriers to achieve new and exciting opportunities. In the same regard, those who are innovative are risk-takers; they aren’t afraid to make bold moves even if that means running the risk of failing.

2. They Have a Deep Understanding of the User

Marion also identifies the importance of a user-centric mindset in innovation. “Great innovation efforts can be very simple,” he says. “But they have to be focused on the user. Technology might enhance that experience when it can, but it’s all about the consumer’s experience—whether that’s a person, a dog, or even a zoo animal.” This, he explains, is part of what makes Apple so innovative. They develop their products with intuitiveness and customer experience in mind and create tools that can integrate with one another in a way that makes their users’ lives easier. “Companies that…focus on a user tend to stand out from the pack,” he says.

3. They Are Educated on Their Company’s History of Innovation

Though it may seem counterintuitive for innovators who are looking to change their company’s futures to look back, Marion strongly believes that, to move forward with a clear path, innovators must first take the time to understand the past. “Companies should realize [that] their pasts, their current situations, and where things are going in the future are intertwined,” he says, noting that an understanding of all of these aspects can provide the kind of “broad perspective” necessary to be effectively innovative.

4. They Can Narrow Their View When Needed

Alongside an ability to take the bigger picture into account, people who are successfully innovative can also drill down and look closely at a specific idea or issue when needed, as well. Marion refers to this as being “a T-shaped person,” with both a broad scope of talents and the ability to focus in on a specific area of business as needed. Though not all innovators are born with this unique combination of skills, Marion believes professionals can hone this process through hands-on experience and exposure to real-world scenarios.

5. They Have Strong Interpersonal Skills

Also known as “soft skills,” interpersonal skills are critical for success in the workplace. Though these skills can range from time management to creativity,  innovative professionals embrace a certain combination which allows them to thrive.

  • Collaboration: Innovators recognize the power of teamwork and acknowledge that successful innovation rarely happens alone. Instead, these individuals know how to embrace the skills and perspectives of those around them in pursuit of positive change.
  • Critical Thinking: Innovation relies heavily on one’s ability to think strategically about a situation or problem and come up with original yet plausible solutions.
  • Leadership: Perhaps the most important skill among innovators—especially within a larger organization—is leadership. Being able not only to compose a team, but also manage them and inspire them to embrace change is key in the process of innovation.
  • Communication: Successful innovators must be able to not only come up with new ideas—or new applications of existing ideas—but to also effectively communicate to coworkers, investors, and consumers exactly why this change is needed.

Those hoping to hone their innovation skills might consider an advanced training program like a master’s in innovation to learn exactly how to apply these skills to their work.

6. They are Lifelong Learners

Although there are many traits that successful innovators possess, there is only one trait you really need to be innovative: a continuous desire to learn and improve. 

To accomplish this, innovative individuals must be willing to self-reflect, identify the spaces in which their skills or experiences fall short, and take the necessary steps to fill those gaps— whether they’re in their knowledge of their organization’s history, their personal soft skills, or even their ability to take risks and learn from the outcomes.

Digging Deeper: Since so much of innovation relies on technology, this is a specific area in which professionals must work to keep up with the constant advances. “You can’t rely solely on your existing technical skills,” Marion says. “Technology is changing so dramatically now that if you learn a type of programming language, [for example], that language might be completely obsolete in a couple of years.”

One way aspiring innovators can embrace lifelong learning is by enrolling in a graduate program like Northeastern’s Master of Science in Innovation, which can help students to not only stay abreast of specific industry trends and advances, but also to hone the skills they need to be successful.

Pursuing an MS in Innovation at Northeastern

Northeastern’s Master of Science in Innovation (MSI) uniquely provides students with an entire degree dedicated to the topic of innovation. Considered “a huge differentiator for the program,” Marion explains that this concentrated track has been designed to strategically provide students with exposure to all the skill sets they need to be effective innovators.

Did You Know: While Northeastern’s Master of Science in Innovation program can be a standalone degree for those who desire tailored training, the degree is also designed to roll up into a traditional MBA with the completion of just 30 more credits. 

Within the MSI program, students explore the innovation process from start to finish—including understanding markets, leading teams, and exploring how innovation can impact a company—while simultaneously working on their interpersonal skills through a series of in-class and hands-on experiences.

Experiential learning—or learning by doing—is the foundation of Northeastern’s program,” Marion says. Through real-world projects that occur in active corporations—as well as in-class discussion groups, activities, and exercises—students can practice problem-solving through innovation in a multitude of environments, all while still under the guidance of seasoned professionals.

Learn More: Why Enroll in a Master’s in Innovation Program

Students are also able to develop a professional network of classmates, alumni, professors, and working professionals during their time in Northeastern’s program. “Any innovation effort is magnified when you have good people working with and for you,” Marion says, emphasizing that this is why Northeastern has worked to include so many opportunities for collaboration among classmates and even with alumni.

“We’ve implemented a new one-to-one alumni mentoring [program],” Marion says. “Each student gets an alumnus [or alumnae] as a mentor as a way of developing and propagating this network of fellow innovators.”

Northeastern’s program has taken every step to ensure students graduate with the tools they need to be innovative, solidifying Marion’s belief that innovation is not an elusive process, but one which can be learned by those with the proper mindset for lifelong learning.

Download Our Free Guide to Introducing Innovation into Your Organization