Navigating the Innovation Gap: Innovation or Invention?

September 22, 2017 Sara Audisho

Innovation or invention? What’s the difference and is it an important distinction to make?

If we’re being honest here, this series has at some point used the two interchangeably, if not explicitly then implicitly.

At first glance, swapping these terms occasionally for one another doesn’t seem like a big deal. After all, they’re related in many ways and one can surely lead to the other. But when considering how each of them affect change in their own way, the difference becomes much clearer.

Bill Walker at Wired spells it out for us:

“Invention is about creating something new, while innovation introduces the concept of ‘use’ of an idea or method…An invention is usually a ‘thing’, while an innovation is usually an invention that causes change in behavior or interactions.”

It’s one accomplishment to design something that no one has thought of before. This is an invention. Now whether that something is ‘innovative’ per se depends on how much it’s going to change the lives of consumers. Walker candidly reminds us that inventions without a “use” are not innovation.

As entertaining as infomercials for the Snuggie or Slapchop are (don’t lie, we know you weirdly enjoy them too), these patented inventions don’t all in all change behaviour. They generate chatter – and many fantastic internet memes – but they haven’t reshaped our lives in some way or form. At the very least, they haven’t become commonplace items in the household, like the refrigerator or microwave. Yes, this also means that OxiClean has nothing on the invention of the automobile. Sorry to break it to you.

“Invention is easy – innovation is genius (or accidental)” says Walker. He goes on to say that the invention of the iPhone was not really a ground-breaking invention. Touch screens, applications, user interfaces and mobile communications for voice and data existed before Apple swamped the market with its first cellular device.

So no, the iPhone was not ground-breaking. That doesn’t mean, however, that it wasn’t a great invention. Users of iPhones know that the device is unparalleled to most other phones in terms of, well, everything you’d need in a phone. There wasn’t anything quite like the first iPhone before its release.

At the core of understanding the difference between inventions and innovations, then, is their big picture impact. Apple did not invent the first “smart” device or touchscreen, but the iPhone’s transformative effect on society demonstrates how innovative it is.

Summary point: very few inventions are innovations and very few innovations are inventions.

Say what?

In other words: most inventions on their own do not go on to change lives and processes. However, an invention can be leveraged by innovation to become ground-breaking. Most innovations are not pioneering ideas but are successful work drawn from ideas that were already in existence.

It’s possible that there be an innovative invention – an invention that actually is ground-breaking – but most of the time the two play different roles in achieving a solution. Think of invention as the first inquiry into a particular problem or phenomenon, and innovation as the follow-up and continuous improving of that invention.

We need our inventors and we need our innovators. For every thousand inventions that have little impact, there will be one that lays the foundation for an innovative solution.

And just in case any confusion remains, we kindly refer you to stellar examples of ideas that are barely inventions and most certainly not innovative. The Chicago Tribune published an article last week highlighting things Silicon Valley recently “invented that already existed.” The article profiled several companies that have profited off of repackaging ideas and selling them as ‘new’ and ‘innovative’.

One example was a hi-tech juicer that came with a subscription of pre-packaged bags of fruits and vegetables. Marketed beyond belief to be a game changer, the juicer ran its course with consumers and is now shutting down its operations.

Consumers want utility out of what they buy. Items have to either save them time or be worth the time they have. 

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