Innovation or Invention?

IpodI love to listen to podcast. I guess I am an admitted iPod-olic. These things are the greatest. During my workout yesterday and on a bike ride later in the day, I listened to a couple of episodes of CNBC’s series “The Business of Innovation”. Maria Bartiromo and the CNBC crew did a wonderful job with this series.  For some time I have believed that the word innovation is overused. Think about it, I think every one of my competitors thinks they are truly innovative. I am not going to use this blog as an opportunity to talk down my competition. I am simply pointing out that most every company thinks of themselves as innovative. Some of the claims are entertaining.

So, what is innovation? Many people focus on disruptive and even radical innovations. That is easier to understand. There are others that focus on incremental innovation. There are those that have a very narrow view of innovation and think that it must take the form of a ‘hard’ product such as the iPod. In the introduction to the show Maria says the following:

Innovation is the lifeblood of any business. Be it a groundbreaking invention or an incremental change in process, innovation is about generating new ideas that will prevent a company from stagnation by giving its products and services a competitive edge. In today’s challenging economic environment, it may be tempting to scale back but it is actually more important than ever to innovate.

Yet it is one thing to recognize the value of innovation but quite another to make it happen. Effecting change necessarily means turning established business practices on their heads, being open to experimentation and the possibility of failure. It demands creative thinkers, fearless leaders and a corporate culture that embraces change combined with the capability to turn new ideas into winning products and services. It’s as easy and as hard as it sounds.

So, how does an organization or individual go about innovating? In the episode, “Redefining Innovation”, Ursula Burns of Xerox said, “Customers can’t really articulate always what they want. They give you a rough outline”.  Often, innovation can be found in solutions to what keeps customers ‘up at night”. Other times, I think Ms. Burns is right; they really are not able to articulate a problem. For that matter, they may not want to because it would require change. Regardless, innovation frequently takes the form of ‘solutions’ (another overused word) to problems or simply changing the way something is done. 

segwayFar too often a business INVENT but to not really INNOVATE. Yes, they find a cool technology, but did they really solve a problem or improve a process? A wise engineering manager once told me that he did not care about cool technology just of the sake of cool technology. Want an example? How about the Segway – a wonderful invention. I am not sure I would call it innovative (although given the price of gas I may want one soon). 

So, back to my iPod - Was the iPod an innovation? I don’t want to create an argument here but what is innovative about the iPod? I suggest it was the clean interface and sexy appearance. It was also how they brought it to market and the application of the brand. Perhaps the real innovation that answered a need was iTunes? At the time of launch, where would you have gone for digital content?

Innovation can be applied to everything we do - look for real solutions and answers. There are problems to solve and innovations to bring to market.