Innovation vs. Invention: Does your enterprise know the difference?

Key principles to help your organization bring it’s best ideas to fruition.

What comes to mind when you hear the word “invention”?

How about when you hear “innovation”?  

Do the terms conjure similar images, or are they drastically different?

Do they require creativity? Structured discipline? Both?

These questions are top of mind among many leaders today, as their companies face mounting pressure to adapt, evolve, or disrupt in markets driven by constant technological change.In this series we’ll look at the important distinction between invention and innovation, and flesh out some key principles to help organizations bring their best ideas to fruition.

Let’s start with the semantics. While innovation and invention are often treated as interchangeable terms, they are not the same. Invention is creating something new; it results in a product, process, or concept that is introduced to the world for the first time. Innovation is applying a new use or perspective to something that already exists; it takes the familiar and makes it better.

While invention is a one-and-done event, innovation is an iterative quest. It’s the drive to outdo what has already been done, and it has been propelling humans—and the products we create—for eons. As one neuroscientist put it, “a wild imagination has characterized the history of our species… because humans don’t have a settling point. What we seek is surprise, not simply a fulfillment of expectations.”1 That’s why we’ve moved past carpet sweepers to autonomous vacuum cleaners; from the Model T to self-driving cars; from Edison’s lightbulb to smart home lighting systems.

But if the drive to innovate is innate, turning innovative ideas into marketable realities is a bit more complicated. So how do businesses harness this human inclination and turn it to competitive advantage? There’s no foolproof formula. Despite all the corporate-endorsed hackathons, well-funded skunkworks, and high-powered innovation officers in today’s corporations, innovation is still chaotic, risky business.  

Four elements of successful innovation can lend structure to this daunting task. The list is deceptively simple and devilishly difficult to balance. The innovation-execution gap is littered with products that never came to fruition in part because innovators ignored or tried to skip one of the following core requirements. Teams serious about bringing a product or service to market need to embrace all four elements if they’re going to move the needle from ideation to execution.

  1. Identify your true customer early and keep them top of mind throughout the entire innovation process. Your customer will reveal things about the product that you never see from your vantage point. And no matter how great an idea is, without meeting a customer need, you are essentially building a product for no one.
  2. Use cross-disciplinary thinking and resources to gain new perspectives in taking your innovation from idea to product. Innovation requires participation and feedback from different functional teams, with different experiences and diverse ways of thinking, because that interaction  between disciplines often yields the best results.
  3. Learn to embrace the chaos. Innovation is a form of organized mayhem that rarely moves in a straight line. You’ll be seeking out different points of view that take your project down paths you hadn’t expected, engaging people with strong and diverse viewpoints you hadn’t considered, and trying and failing multiple times. It isn’t a free-for-all, but innovation is messy.
  4. Uphold a culture of courage that welcomes failure.  You’ll be exploring untested ideas that may not succeed the first time around, but those failures will always lead to knowledge that can push you closer to success on the next iteration.

These elements are requisites, but they don’t guarantee success. When it comes to innovation there are no guarantees. It’s a messy, unpredictable process and there’s simply no way around that. But teams that commit to putting their customer first, and are brave enough to embrace the chaos of cross-functional design and iterative learning, just might surprise themselves—and all of us—with the next great innovation.

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