Symbols are structuring our everyday life to an extent we rarely get aware of. For a very long time, the symbol for innovation has been the lightbulb. But this symbol implies a misleading way of thinking about innovation. We will give 3 reasons in what way the lightbulb is misleading and the lighthouse is a better symbol. Changing the symbol can change the way innovation is perceived in organizations.

1. The lightbulb evokes that innovation is about solution ideas, not needs

The lightbulb stands for innovation because the lightbulb also is a symbol of an idea. Innovation inherited its symbol from the symbol of having an idea. While ideas play an important part in innovation, we believe that it is not ideas that should be put at the center of innovation. Why? Because starting with ideas invests your organization into things that are in danger of being biased. Everyone loves their ideas. But the question in innovation is: Will the customer love it too? (Mostly they don’t) That is why we love the Jobs-to-be-done logic of thinking about innovation. Jobs-to-be-done, in a nutshell, says that you should start with thinking about what it is the customer is trying to achieve and work your way back to solution ideas. Think about what Job the customer ultimately wants to get done (that’s why she uses your product), say furnish her room, get from A to B or achieve a higher level of mental fitness (these are all examples of Jobs). That way you are free from certain biases and start thinking about what the customer needs first. In fact, Jobs-to-be-done will help you have better ideas that are more aligned with your customers. Ultimately it’s them who have to like the solutions.

The lighthouse on the other hand is not a symbol of a starting point, but a symbol of where you want to go. It sheds a guiding light onto your path. That is a much more fitting symbol for innovation that does not start with the idea-bias but the Job of the customer as a goal in mind. That is the shift from a symbol that stands for a solution idea to a symbol that puts need understanding at its core. Innovation should have a symbol that frames the needs of customers as a goal to achieve.

2. The lightbulb implies that innovation happens as a eureka moment, not as a result of hard work

We all know the lightbulbs suddenly appearing over the heads of someone who just had an idea. They have a short think and “Ping” there’s the idea: the eureka moment! The fact that we all know this imagery tells you all about the power of symbols…

But is innovation something that happens like this? Very very rarely yes – in general: No. Innovations that have lasting success in the market are almost always the result of hard work. This does not mean that it must take years to get there, but it takes a process. Over the last 10 years, Vendbridge has designed a process that puts the customer and her needs at the core of each phase – from framing the challenge to making it stick in the organization and the market.

Now, to be fair to the lightbulb: the best eureka moments happen precisely after having put a lot of work thought in it. But the symbol of the lightbulb does not really imply this or can give the dangerous impression that innovation “happens to you by chance”.

That is why the lighthouse is a better symbol: Even if it suddenly appears at the horizon you still have to get there. There’s a path you have to make to achieve it and it servers as a guiding light. But you have to work for it. That guiding lights are the needs of the people you are innovating for. It’s work, not chance.

3. Lightbulbs suggest that innovation can be turned on and off, while it is more about navigating the unknown

Just as quickly as a lightbulb is turned on it can be switched off. They are prime examples of a binary system: Yes/No, 1/0, On/Off. If you orient innovation around solution ideas only (we’re not saying ideas are unimportant!) then innovation becomes something binary: Failure/success, Yes/No, Win/Lose, Build/Break.

But innovation understanding innovation as something purely binary will de-fuel the effort that is put into it. Innovation projects, large or small, are more like ships navigating in a mix of known and unknown. What we need in more than ever VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world is an orientation, a guiding light – a lighthouse. We believe that this lighthouse should be the customer’s Jobs-to-be-done and her needs. Jobs-to-be-done is particularly apt as a lighthouse because Jobs are very inert, they stay the same for a very long time. Since there were humans we did go from A to B, since there were humans they furnished their rooms (or caves for that matter), since there were humans we strived to achieve higher levels of mental fitness. What has changed are the available means: the output of great innovation work.

Jobs-to-be-done, therefore, resonates well with the prevalent idea that innovation is a so-called “open problem“. Innovation is a problem that does not have a binary Yes or No answer and requires the ongoing development of multiple answers. The same idea is incorporated in Jobs-to-be-done: The problem (achieving the Job) stays the same, the means change.

From a solution idea focus to a need understanding of innovation

It is clear that just changing a symbol will not change the way innovation is done or perceived in an organization. And maybe the lighthouse is not the best alternative. But the general thrust where innovation needs to move is towards a need understanding of innovation. A change in the symbols we use can be a start, but there is more to be done. Why not start by framing your next innovation project by asking what Job of your customer you are helping them achieve better? You can do that even if you have already started with an idea or have a concept in mind. Take a step back from your lightbulb and think “customer need” first. In our framing workshops, we experience that this re-framing of the innovation challenge from a Jobs-to-be-done perspective changes the direction of projects. It opens up the sea of possibilities that lies beyond the lightbulb, without losing direction: Teams align around the customers Job-to-be-done and start working towards it. As if it were a lighthouse.