Why Mistaking Invention for Innovation Could be Hurting Your Business.

Author:Varho, Scott
Position:Shoptalk/commentary - Reprint

Innovation has long been the buzzword of the digital era. It has been called "the mantra of business leaders" and "the most important and overused word in America." According to a McKinsey study, 84 percent of executives say that innovation is important to their growth strategy.

In one sense, this is a good thing. As the Atlantic put it, "In the 17th century, 'innovators' didn't get accolades. They got their ears cut off." Modern society's embrace of innovation has enabled a technology explosion that has taken us from the telegraph to the iPhone, carriages, to self-driving cars.

However, in another sense, the overuse of the word has led to a blurred understanding of what innovation actually is. Many consider it synonymous with invention. In reality, it's not. How your company defines innovation can determine its prospects and success. And interchanging the two ideas can mortally undermine your company's outlook.

We come by the confusion honestly. Trusted sources such as Merriam-Webster give a convoluted and misleading explanation of the difference. Merriam-Webster defines invention as the creation of a device or process that previously didn't exist, and defines innovation as "a change made to an existing product, idea or field. One might say that the first telephone was an invention, and the first smartphone an innovation."

This definition misses the point in a fundamental way. The critical difference between invention and innovation is value creation. Innovation is something new or something old applied in a new way that creates new value. This is well-illustrated by the phrase, "an innovative solution." Invention is something new that could create value, but doesn't have to.

Another way to look at this is that innovation usually starts with solving a need (and therefore contributing to value creation). However, invention starts with solving a technical challenge (that doesn't necessarily create value if there is no demand for the solution).

A classic example of this difference is the Rube Goldberg Machine, named for the cartoonist who frequently drew devices that performed simple tasks in convoluted ways. The term has come to refer to an overly complicated and usually useless contraption. It has all the markings of a clever invention, but it hardly adds value greater than the cost or complexity of alternatives. It's not innovation.

An example of innovation is the automobile. The invention was the combustion engine. But the combustion...

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