Unlocking Innovation (Part I of VI): What is it really?

This is a section of a six-part series of articles that focuses on unpacking the complexity of innovation and showing the reality that innovation is attainable to everyone. Our goal from this series is to spark conversations and get people to look at innovation, creativity and leadership from a different perspective.

Innovation, is it more that just a buzzword???

There is a lot of buzz out there about innovation; how important it is and how it is the focus of businesses, governments, economic development, and the future of the non-profit sector. There is extensive information around about the importance and impact of successful innovation, but what it is rarely seen is a clear understand about what it is and how to approach developing it.

Anyone who has done any strategic planning and had conversations around community and economic development has likely seen these conversations become about the need to innovative. However, sometimes when we say we need to find an “innovative” solution, we are just throwing it around without really understanding it. We need to get beyond the generic meaning of innovate, and truly understand what it is, and how we can obtain it.

In our work we work to inspire innovative concepts and help implement innovative solutions. Making innovation accessible is really the cornerstone of the work that we do. However, sometimes when we say innovative people roll their eyes and think we are just throwing around it as a buzzword. Recently in a client meeting about a very innovative idea that our team came up with, a community partner we were speaking to challenged the term “innovation”. She, like a lot of people, is tired of the buzzwords that sound important but really mean nothing. She asked, “When you say innovation, what does that even mean? Can you even describe innovation?”

These are valid questions that we find ourselves responding to fairly often. Here is how we address them:

Six Simple Machines

Innovation isn’t necessarily about high tech solutions to complex problems. Innovation has always existed, we just don’t always appreciate the impact that it had in the past. This concept could not be more evident than with the example of the Six Simple Machines. In a world before everything became digital every invention was made up of the same simple building blocks, the Six Simple Machines. They are, in no particular order, the Wheel and Axle, the Pulley, the Lever, the Inclined Plain, the Screw, and the Wedge. For example, wheels, levers, and pulleys are all used in the mechanism of a bicycle. These simple inventions, applied with minimal force, are the formula for almost every invention from the Renaissance to the digital age.

The concept of the Six Simple Machines is the foundation to what true innovation is; to solve a problem, take the existing components, ideas, and resources, look at them with a fresh perspective, and look at a new way to solve the problem. The point of innovation is not to reinvent the wheel, but to literally repurpose it.

So when it comes to looking for an innovative solution, using the concept of the Six Simple Machines, look at the situation, deconstruct the problem from its frame to its components, identify any missing pieces, look for a different frame that has been used for a different purpose, take that frame and rebuild the solution with the new frame and old components. Just like you can disassemble a bicycle, remove its frame, gather some additional pieces, take the frame of a wheelbarrow, and build a wagon.

Simple Innovations

An example of this idea of simple innovations would be Life Hacks, which is defined as any trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life. Life Hacks look at common problems, break it down to it’s core issue, look for solutions to similar issues, then identify ways to repurpose something to solve the core issue. Here are a few examples:

Making pancakes too messy?

Keep a clean ketchup bottle on hand and pour your batter into the bottle for quick, easy and exact portions for your pancakes.

Kids falling out of bed?

Cut a pool noodle to the length of your child’s bed and stick in under the fitted sheet at the edges for a soft and safe barrier to prevent them from rolling out.

Keep hitting your fingers when hammering nails?

Use a wooden clothespin to hold the nail in place to keep your fingers safe and away from danger.

Doesn’t need to be complicated, just different

The key to understanding innovation is that simple and practical, yet fresh, approaches are the most meaningful and impactful types of innovation. They are the tried and true foundation that got our faces off the cave walls and into our iPhones.

The simple tools of deconstructing a problem, looking for fresh thinking, finding new different (yet existing) frames to build our solutions on, and being open to trying and failing are the actual tools of true innovation.

The Takeaway

The key to really understanding innovation is to not think complicated, but think a little different. All the tools you likely need to innovate already exist, it is just being able to deconstruct the problem, being open to looking at things from a different perspective and having the vision to put the pieces together. This process, combined with the willing to try and fail is an excellent recipe for innovation.


Roman 3 is an advising and solutions firm that specializes in inspiring progressive action, creating a culture of innovation, and assisting organizations in implementing transformative change. We help you build capacity, collaborate, be progressive, and grow to your full potential. For more information on our services and support reach out to us at info@roman3.ca