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Invention is often viewed as a source of economic growth. It isn’t. It’s innovation that generates new products, new services, new businesses, and new jobs. As a country we need to be focused on innovation more than ever before.
Invention and innovation have been mashed together so thoroughly that it is hard to tell the difference between them—yet they could not be more different.
The implications of this confusion are important, steering budding entrepreneurs down the wrong path, crimping the growth of existing companies, and muddying public policy intended to support business.
It is time to clarify and redefine the difference between invention and innovation.
Invention is accurately perceived as a cornerstone of innovation. It generates new ideas, patents, prototypes, designs, breakthrough experiments, and working models. However, it’s innovation that transforms these inventions into commercial products, services, and businesses. Ultimately an invention is only valued by the marketplace when customers use it or buy it. For example, the technology behind flat-screen TVs was invented decades ago. The breakthrough innovation was the application of that technology to the public’s insatiable appetite for crystal-clear digital pictures on big-screen HDTV.
For the past 30 years I have been teaching courses in the process of innovation in executive education programs at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and consulting with firms worldwide on the topic. When I started, the application of the word to new products and services was uncluttered by different interpretations or spin. But over time, marketers discovered “innovation.” They found a word that evokes a good feeling without the burden of being specific. Do you want to avoid saying “new and improved”? Just say the product is the result of innovation. The word has come to mean just about anything that is new, which is too broad to be useful.
Competing with innovation for attention is invention, which is also surrounded by an aura of good feeling, conjuring up images of a computer being built in a garage and the inventor emerging as a billionaire folk hero. As a result, invention has been linked in the public mind to success in the marketplace, and that is not so.
When a new idea surfaces or a new patent is filed—that is an invention. It is the classic eureka moment when a person has an idea for the better mousetrap and sets about creating it, putting off concern about who will buy it for another day. At a different level, much of the basic research done in R&D labs in corporations and at universities is the invention process. It is research for the sake of building knowledge, which is certainly important, but not done with thought of commercialization.
Meeting a Need
Innovation is a very different concept. When a need is identified and a product or service is developed to meet that need, you have an innovation. People talk about the “invention” of the lightbulb or the “invention” of the iPhone, when in fact neither Thomas Edison nor Steve Jobs were inventors. They both used existing technology in new ways with an eye toward a big market for the result. They were innovators.
This is not simply an exercise in definitions. Entrepreneurs work tirelessly to form and build businesses, and they need all the help they can get. When they are launching their first enterprise, it is important for them to understand that an invention, no matter how inspired, will not be worth much if nobody wants to buy it. For established businesses looking for new profit centers, it is important to understand that brainstorming new product ideas is worth far less than identifying consumer wants and needs and developing products or services to meet them. For policymakers trying to figure out how to support a region’s entrepreneurial spirit, understanding the difference between invention and innovation can lead to distinctly different approaches.