Innovation Always Trumps Invention
By Thomas D. Kuczmarski
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 North western'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.