This blog post was written by Alec Miller, Manager, Measured Innovation at TechAlliance
Although certainly not new, the trend towards innovation seems to have accelerated in the last few years. In the wake of the 2008 economic downturn, many governments and organizations have invested heavily in innovation as a way to spur economic activity.
But what exactly is innovation? Are invention and innovation the same thing? Are all innovations created equal? These are a few of the questions I’d like to explore in this and future blog posts.
Having worked with numerous entrepreneurs, academics, engineers and techno-enthusiasts for over four years, I’ve noticed a common misconception that, although subtle, ends up having a significant impact on whether a venture/endeavour will be successful. The perceived misconception has to do with the difference between invention and innovation and how this impacts an entrepreneur’s plans.
The Wikipedia entry on innovation does a good job distinguishing between these two terms:
Innovation is the development of new customer value through solutions that meet new needs, unarticulated needs, or old customer and market needs in new ways. This is accomplished through different or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas that are readily available to markets, governments, and society. Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself. Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different (Lat. innovare: “to change”) rather than doing the same thing better.
As the Wikipedia definition indicates, innovation and invention are related, but are actually quite different things. Invention is having the idea or creating the thing or process, whereas innovation has more to do with organizing and disseminating that idea, product, service, or process.
One might analogize invention to the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams – “build it and they will come.” In contrast, an innovator realizes that it’s not just a matter of building it, but rather, organizing it, promoting it, and connecting the right dots, only after which is it fair to assume that “they” will want to come.
I’ve found that there are two ends to the spectrum about how people think about creating new products, services and processes. The one end of the spectrum is what I would call the “solutions first approach” where a person creates a product, service, or process which is driven primarily by technical feasibility, rather than by market need, or customer pain. “Look at what my technology can do” they might say, rather than “look at how well my technology solves problem X.”
The other end of the spectrum is what I would call the “problems first approach,” in which a person creates a product, service, or process which is driven first and foremost by the need or problem to be solved.
Whereas an inventor often looks at new opportunities from the “solutions first approach,” the innovator uses the “problems first approach.” Of course, these are not mutually exclusive concepts, but I’ve found that those entrepreneurs who approach their development activities with their intended customer in mind, often have fewer problems in commercializing their ideas, than do the inventors who often create solutions in a vacuum.