Innovation versus Invention

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Jul 02

The rage, of course, is innovation in business. Innovate or die. Or something like that.

While I’ve thought innovation can be something that is done to improve a product or process, most of innovation has focused on breakthrough products — the iPhone was released this weekend, for example — to the detriment of less newsworthy items.

It was a pleasure to read in this week’s Fortune that there is a difference between invention and innovation. In the article “Xerox’s Inventor-in-Chief,” Sophie Vandebrock makes a distinction between invention and innovation.

Invention, she says, is just something that a company can do. “It’s not yet an innovation,” she says, “because we now have to figure out how to get an idea like that into the market.”

It’s an interesting distinction. There are companies that produce patent after patent (HP famously upped the number of patents in a given year significantly under Carly Fiorina), but don’t have something that translates into something customers want. Sophie doesn’t count something as “innovation” unless customers are willing to buy it. The rest are merely “inventions.”

When your management is talking about breakthrough inventions, evaluate them based upon the “invention versus innovation” filter: will your customers really buy what you just invented?

If it’s just an invention, it tells you one thing about where your company is headed. If it’s an invention translated into customer sales, that is an innovation and leads somewhere else.