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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Inventor or Innovator?


Was Thomas Edison an inventor or innovator?  How about Henry Ford?  The Wright Brothers? Robert Fulton? Fred Smith (FedEx)?  Steve Jobs?

Our language leaves lots of room for ambiguity on the meaning of some words, especially words that have fuzzy boundaries.  When does something stop being an invention and start to be an innovation?  Are these two concepts simply degrees on the same scale?  Why care at all?  I think the reason to think about it is that we are inundated with news stories, blogs, and websites on the need for innovation to jump-start the economy. If only we were more innovative in this county (the stories go), unemployment would plummet, business would prosper, and we would be back on the road to prosperity.  Of course, there are many reasons why this isn't so simple but I want to propose that part of the reason is that we are not clear about what differentiates innovation from invention.  Moreover, we are not clear about the differences between innovators and inventors.  If you were forced to describe yourself as one or the other, which would you be?

Let's start with invention.  The Patent Office defines an invention as something that is useful, new, and non-obvious to someone skilled in the art.  That is a pretty broad definition of what constitutes an invention, hence the protracted arguments between would-be inventors and the Patent Office.  This definition sweeps in everything from the slightly modified laundry detergent to fundamentally new technology.  I tend to think of true invention as being on the latter end of the scale.  New means new, as in a significant capability that has not existed in the past.  Small product improvements don't count as a true invention in my book.  I agree with the non-obvious provision.  If it were obvious, it would have qualities that were so apparent it would not constitute an invention.  The usefulness requirement is where things get sticky.  Many really fundamental inventions may not be useful at all in the sense of being a product (even though they might be patentable).  Think of Wright Brothers first airplane.  No one was standing in line to buy one.  The Wrights had to do a lot of promotion to the military of a number of governments to get them to see that airplanes might be useful mobile observation platforms.  Usefulness is in the eye of the potential customer.  The more radical the invention, the less current customers will find it of interest.  Real invention is almost by definition outside of the norms of current products.  And the corollary is equally true: real inventions work, but sometimes only marginally and only with a limited set of capabilities.  The first powered airplane flew only a few hundred feet.  It was a true heavier-than-air flying machine but not very useful (yet). Inventions are more than improvements.  They offer fundamental new capabilities that haven't existed before.  Most people would use words like prototype to describe the first embodiments of new inventions.  They have a long way to go before they are new products.

Why were they created, or put another way, what motivates inventors?  Often it is not due to obvious market needs.  No one knew (including the Wright Brothers) where the airplane was going.  No one could foresee any day soon when airplanes would transport large numbers of people or be the lethal military weapons.  The Wright Brothers invented the airplane to prove that a heavier-than-air machine could fly.  Period.  Inventors are motivated by the challenge of creating some capability that has never existed before.  The very act of creation is one of the rewards that drives them to invent.  Of course, recognition, fame, being the first to accomplish something, also plays a part.  So does money, but to a surprisingly small degree.  Generally, inventors don't need any customers or existing markets to motivate them.  Inventors are internally motivated. They share much with artists who feel a compelling need to create.

Innovations have a completely different origin.  They are driven by perceived needs in the marketplace.  The needs may be stated directly by potential customers or they may be unspoken but believed to be real by the innovator.  Innovations can be incremental improvements in a product or a process but that does not make them either trivial or easy.  Real innovation can be very difficult and expensive to implement.  Think of what Fred Smith had to put in place to build FedEx:  airplanes, warehouses, trucks, and information systems all needed to be there before the system would work.  The innovation was to see a way to create an effective system and build it.  Fred Smith didn't invent anything but he surely innovated.

Unlike inventors, innovators are people of and for the market.  They think about customer needs.  They also think about the customers' ability to spend money.  Innovators are motivated by building systems, by doing things in a better way, and by making money -- lots of money.  Innovators are externally motivated.  Robert Fulton wasn't the first to operate a commercial steamboat in the United States but he was the first to build a steamboat that filled a large unmet need to move passengers and freight on the Hudson River.  He was unapologetically in it for the money and the glory.  Steve Jobs also fits the definition of an innovator.  His early partner, Steve Wozniak, was the inventor in the duo.  Jobs is a genius at identifying and fulfilling unmet customers' needs.  He uses largely existing technology to meet those needs.

Thomas Edison was a much better inventor than he was an innovator.  He created new-to-the-world machines and devices but he wasn't very good at seeing how to use them.  He thought the phonograph would be the answer to office stenography, not the birth of a music industry.  His lighting system was built for DC power which was unscalable to meet wide-spread customer needs.  Henry Ford was also an innovator.  He did not build the first gasoline-powered automobile.  He didn't even invent the moving assembly line.  That idea was borrowed from the Chicago meat packing plants and their disassembly lines.  Ford saw the unmet customer need for an inexpensive automobile and did everything in his power to give it them.  He focused relentlessly on that single idea, even to the point of painting all of his cars black to reduce costs and hence price.

To summarize, invention is not innovation.  Inventors are more like artists motivated by the creative act.  Innovators are more like farmers growing new crops.  Because our society tends to give credit to the person who successfully commercializes an idea, we tend to remember the names of innovators more than we do inventors.  Often, inventions have a very long incubation period of trials and failures before they have enough capability to be commercialized. By that time, the inventor(s) have been displaced by innovators who have a much better commercial sense. Innovators tend to change the world using incremental technology.  Inventors create new technologies.  Both are important.  While the news media focuses on innovation, maybe it would be worthwhile to also give some virtual ink to the need to foster invention.   Innovators can change the rules of the game.  Inventors play a new game altogether.

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