Invention Isn’t Innovation

As an inventor with over 70  issued US patents, I am often surprised at how many companies claim to be “leaders in innovation” but then proceed to list their patents as proof. Patents are evidence of inventions – of having thought of something first, and documenting the invention through a legal process. While I am […]

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As an inventor with over 70  issued US patents, I am often surprised at how many companies claim to be “leaders in innovation” but then proceed to list their patents as proof. Patents are evidence of inventions – of having thought of something first, and documenting the invention through a legal process. While I am proud of the work I have done toward developing new solutions to problems through my inventions, I also know from my experience that their usefulness is in no way proven by their mere existence: “inventions” are a raw material for innovation, but innovation isn’t measured in terms of patent claims or trade secrets, it’s measured in terms of impact.  

Invention vs. innovation

To illustrate this we should start by laying down some definitions, because while most thesauruses list these two words as synonyms they are not interchangeable. Invention is the process of conceiving or discovering something that is both new and useful. I can work in my lab, have an insight, and scribble a specification and patent claim. Voila! Invention. Innovation, by contrast, is best defined in terms of change or disruption to the existing order of things. For a change to be impactful at scale, it requires more than invention; It requires that the invention be reduced to practice, formulated as a product design, and delivered at scale.

Or, put another way, invention is potential, and innovation is the realization of that potential as its impact on the world. And while the process that delivers impact — innovation — starts with invention, invention is only the first, small step. Digital entrepreneur Tom Grasty came up with a great analogy for the difference between invention and innovation: “If invention is a pebble tossed in the pond, innovation is the rippling effect that pebble causes.” 

Because innovation is about impact, those of us who study and practice innovation focus on big, disruptive change. We care about disruptive innovation, the kind that creates new markets, reshapes industries or creates entirely new ones. So if invention is necessary but not sufficient,  how does invention lead to disruptive innovation?

Innovation flows from invention. To expand on Grasty’s analogy, if the pebble is the invention, there is something beyond the invention itself that creates the ripple — it’s the throw itself. That throw is the translation of the invention into a product or service. Even a large stone, which is to say an invention with a particularly high potential impact, can sink without much of a ripple without the energy and timing of a skilled throw.  And the wrong rock, or the right rock thrown at the wrong time, may produce almost nothing. 

Another point to keep in mind is that you can’t throw a rock that doesn’t exist, but this is rarely a problem. Invention is a critical step in the innovation process –– ripples cannot happen without something to start them –– but the actual invention can precede high-impact innovation by decades or even longer. For example, Apple released the first iPad in 2010, but the first patent for a system that recognizes handwritten characters by analyzing the handwriting motion was granted in 1914 and the first publicly demonstrated system using a tablet and handwriting recognition for a modern digital computer dates back to the 1950’s. While Tesla has become the poster child for the electric car, electric cars in the US market predate the Tesla Roadster by nearly a century. Rarely are the inventor and the successful innovator the same.

All of this to say, in no way am I dismissing the importance of invention; it’s the fundamental raw material and starting point of innovation.  However, like so many raw materials, it’s often cheaper and faster to acquire it (in this case through intellectual property licensing) than dig it up yourself in a research lab.  In my career I’ve led product teams and built billions of dollars of enterprise value, and I can tell you that if you want to be an entrepreneur that makes a lasting change on the world, don’t focus on invention. Instead, focus on the critical, under-appreciated dimensions of innovation: excellent design, and world-class execution. 

Instead of Invention, Try: Design-driven Innovation

Design is often thought of as making things pretty after all of the hard work is done, but this is a common misunderstanding. Design is the process by which the potential value of solving a problem is realized in practice, and there may be as much or more to discover in the process of refining the solution and making it practical as there is in the original technical or creative insight. As demonstrated with Apple and Tesla, most high-impact innovation is built on a conceptual framework that is decades old or more. Most of the ideas behind innovations aren’t new, and  if you are working on one others are likely doing so as well. Because of this, those who succeed in achieving high-impact innovation are usually those who can iterate and learn most effectively rather than those who are most creative or come up with the most radical ideas. 

Seeing innovation as a result of iterative design rather than technological discovery can be difficult –– as I’ve previously discussed, invention and innovation have become so interconnected in our language that they are often used synonymously. However, while technological innovation is imperative to supporting future designs, if your goal is to build a disruptive business founded on innovation you may be better served by investing in great designers rather than mad scientists. Rather than devaluing the contributions of inventors and scientists, working with skilled designers will amplify and multiply the impact of their inventions. If you are seeking to foster high-impact innovation throughout your entire workplace, find ways to integrate a design-thinking mindset throughout your business such as in the company culture, within R&D activities, and bringing skilled designers and product managers in on projects earlier in the process rather than later.

Instead of Invention, Try: Learning to Execute 

While design is essential to successful innovation, it is also important to remember that great design is the result of a disciplined process. A good design process brings together not just the considerations of a product’s users, but also the contributions of the full product lifecycle, including the execution considerations around manufacturing, distribution, maintenance, refurbishment and reuse, disposal, etc. If you don’t include execution considerations in the early stages of the design process you may put yourself in a corner that you can’t get out of further down the line, which is where many otherwise excellent inventions with a strong product design still fail. In some ways, great execution is even harder to accomplish than great design. The design process invites iteration, encompassing multiple pathways and potential failures that will still lead to success. Execution on the other hand, must be done consistently and without failure.

Execution unfortunately lacks the flashy characteristics of invention and design. Most dimensions of execution are completely invisible to the users of your product –– they won’t be impressed by your supply chain management, back-end redundancy, or robust safety and regulatory compliance processes. However, this is the hallmark of successful execution: if you’re doing things right, your customers will never have to think about them. Unfortunately the invisible, routine excellence that characterizes great execution means that many business leaders who seek to innovate underestimate its importance, emphasizing and directing resources to the more “creative” aspects of their organization, such as invention and product design. But no matter how cool the invention or great the product design, the impact will be minimal if execution falls short.

Final Thoughts

As someone who has literally had “mad scientist” in their job title, I can understand how invention can appear to be innovation – invention sounds exciting and sexy, and patents seem like tangible evidence of innovation prowess. However, as we have seen, “invention” and “innovation” are not the same thing. Invention is just the first step to creating impactful change, which is the core metric of innovation. 

The distinction between invention and innovation is critical to understand if one wants to achieve high-impact, disruptive innovation. Confusion on this point often leads business leaders to over-emphasize invention, through disproportionate investments in research labs or academic partnerships. Likewise, an under-appreciation of great product design and world-class execution can diminish or delay the potential impact of what might otherwise be a truly high-impact innovation. 

At the end of the day, no patent has caught a mouse, sewn a seam, or provided semi-autonomous, low-emissions mobility. But plenty of mouse traps, sewing machines, and electric cars have. These are innovative products, which started long ago as inventions that were reduced to practice, designed as products, and then delivered through execution. And what differentiates the impact of these products has almost nothing to do with the underlying inventiveness of their origins, and almost everything to do with the quality of the product design and the quality of the execution. Focus on design and execution, and disruptive impact will follow. 

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