Innovation and Invention Query

This post might be innovative. I doubt it’s inventive, mostly I’m reopening something that’s been open and I want to get a better understanding of why.

I saw a lot the topics about innovation versus invention a few years ago. Now all I see in IT and especially IT business-related articles is the notion of innovation. For some time people were lamenting the industry’s apparent all-out focus on invention. When instead what people were calling for as the true path to business success was more innovation. Then it seemed there was a media round saying, no really all these successful tech companies are actually innovating, not inventing, let’s not confuse the two. Then countries started getting labeled as having cultures of innovation as opposed to invention. Do a few searches, you’ll see the topics I’m referring to. And that brings me back to the idea that everyone’s concerned with innovating now.

The Wall Street Journal’s recent article on the Right Way For Firms to Be Creative featured an interview with Nick Carr covering what was promoted as his somewhat unorthodox ideas about the innovation trend (though I’d take issue with that, they don’t seem to be very controversial). While he seems to declare the value of innovation, he warns that American companies are too in love with the idea, stating “…that innovation isn’t free, that innovation actually is quite expensive and quite risky.” Carr continues to offer some interesting examples though they’re quite similar (way to innovate, Carr ;-)) to those put forward by Bill Buxton in his piece on design innovation and invention (PDF).

On the difference between innovating and inventing Buxton stated that “Too often the obsession is with ‘inventing’ something totally unique, rather than extracting value from the creative understanding of what is already known.” Or in other words grasping what has been introduced already and building, improving, extending that. I see why innovating then appeals so much to business, especially in tech fields. For one thing, by simply changing or improving on the existing, companies have a more solid base for selling their products or services, they’re introducing something that may already have a level of familiarity to the target audience, and they get a jumpstart on the product/service since they’re not beginning from scratch. (And I might add, innovation is clearly built in to the Free and open source paradigm as FOSS licenses explicitely encourage innovative activities–this is a topic I’d like to explore further.) Note however that Carr raises an issue with companies obsessing on innovation as well,

“They lose sight of the fact that innovation isn’t free, that innovation actually is quite expensive and quite risky… You want to make sure that you innovate in those few areas where innovation can really pay off and create a competitive advantage and not innovate in other areas where it won’t pay off.”

There is great incentive for companies to innovate as opposed to invent. Maybe the initial invention represents a risky value proposition so innovation is seen as a safer bet; it can stand on the shoulders of known successes, or at least, the known. However as Carr points out in the quote above, problems exist with innovation, which I think sound equally applicable to invention. I’d like to refer back to Buxton, who states that “…success in capitalizing upon design and innovation is primarily a cultural thing, and shaping corporate culture is an executive responsibility.” So strategic innovatation must be the phrase of the day–considering the risks involved.

Look, if there are similar risks to innovation and invention can’t we say that both require the same sort of corporate stewardship to be beneficial in business? I think that all-too-often discussions of innovation and invention pit the one against the other. Using a “versus” analysis strategy as the crux of the questioning or exploration of this issue, leads us down a looping and self-destructive path. In other words, why try to say one is better than the other?

Without invention, won’t our platforms for innovation disappear? We need both, the real issue should be to understand how and when and where to devote energy to each. I’d like to see more thought about the interplay between invention and innovation and the creative, developmental, and business strategies for harnessing that interplay–I believe that would be a far more useful discussion.

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