Innovation vs. Invention

28 Apr 2009|Tim Hyer

Last week, Cheskin hosted entrepreneur and innovator, Peter Hart for a discussion on the future of innovation. Peter was a pioneer in the early days of artificial intelligence and search algorithms, and he founded Ricoh Innovations where he currently serves as chairman and president. Very stimulating guy. One of the first conversation topics posed to the group was, “Is there a difference between innovation and invention?” Considering our crowd of innovation consultants, the room quickly perked up and began a debate of semantics. Although the words sound similar, subtle differences in meaning are at the core of why some products enjoy great success while others fall by the wayside.

After some lively conversation, the group concluded that invention “creates something new in the world,” while innovation “captures value from invention.” This made sense to me. You can invent almost anything, but if it doesn’t have qualities of usefulness and value, it isn’t innovative. I was pretty satisfied and agreed with this hypothesis. Then another question was presented to the group, “Is invention easier than innovation?” The consensus was, it is.

Reminds me of the proverb, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” In a lot of ways, I think this relates to innovation. A fish is like an invention; it’s an easy, one-time solution to a problem. If you’re hungry, you eat the fish! But what happens after your fish is gone? Your hunger problem can no longer be satisfied. On the other hand, the process of fishing is an innovation. It’s a way of capturing long-term value from the fish (invention). Now you have the tools, processes and support to continue to adapt as new problems arise. You’ve found a way to create meaning from the invention.

Teaching someone to fish is a lot harder than simply giving him a fish, but the long-term value and rewards are unparalleled. Similarly, the process of innovation is a lot harder than invention because it requires a dedication to the needs and values of a user. It’s not a quick fix. But if you can commit to this level of value creation, you will never go hungry.

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