Innovation vs. Invention

Are we inventing or innovating?

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Have you ever ran into a situation that you thought you were talking about the same thing with the other person but ended up it was not a case?

The meaning of a word can be interpreted very differently from person to person and from context to context. For this article, I will focus on the topic of innovation and invention.

In 2017, I had a chance to attend a workshop ran by Ash Maura from Leanstack. During the workshop, he said “Invention happens in the lab. Innovation happens outside of the lab.” This statement caught my attention.

As a UX/CX strategist, in order to know and validate the problem to be solved, all the work I do is outside of the building, talking to customers, users, buyers, stakeholders, and observing them and listening to them. Instead, technologists that I often work with sit at the computer, staring at the screen and moving their fingers very fast. And after that, they submit for a patent or get an award. Very different activities. Therefore the way Ash described the differences resonated with me a lot.

So what are the differences between invention and innovation? First, let’s take a look at each definition.

Wikipedia says “An invention is a unique or novel device, method, composition or process. The invention process is a process within an overall engineering and product development process. It may be an improvement upon a machine or product or a new process for creating an object or a result. An invention that achieves a completely unique function or result may be a radical breakthrough. Such works are novel and not obvious to others skilled in the same field. An inventor may be taking a big step in success or failure.”

The key in this explanation to me is “An invention that achieves a completely unique function or result may be a radical breakthrough.” Radical breakthrough is not a requirement for something to be determined as invention.

Now, let’s take a look at innovation.

Wikipedia says Innovation in its modern meaning is a “new idea, creative thoughts, new imaginations in form of device or method”.[1] Innovation is often also viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs.[2] Such innovation takes place through the provision of more-effective products, processes, services, technologies, or business models that are made available to markets, governments and society. An innovation is something original and more effective and, as a consequence, new, that “breaks into” the market or society.[3] Innovation is related to, but not the same as, invention,[4] as innovation is more apt to involve the practical implementation of an invention (i.e. new/improved ability) to make a meaningful impact in the market or society,[5] and not all innovations require an invention. Innovation often[quantify] manifests itself via the engineering process, when the problem being solved is of a technical or scientific nature. The opposite of innovation is exnovation.”

It is clear that Invention and innovation has some overlapping meanings. Here are interesting points about “innovation”;

  • The terminology itself is changing in the modern society.
  • Innovation focuses on penetration to the market and its impact.
  • Innovation manifests itself through engineering process, instead invention is the engineering process itself.

Innovation is something that “breaks into” the market or society. It is not explained as “radical breakthrough” as invention. However, it seems like it is a breakthrough in the market and impact in the society.

Since the definition of invention and innovation have similar meanings, innovation may mean different things to different people, depending on each person’s background. (This is related to the topic of Transfer of learning which I am planning on writing about in more detail in upcoming post.)

In order to clarify the difference between invention and innovation, I share examples.

Image link: https://www.rei.com/product/860034/lifestraw-water-filter

Invention Example:

LifeStraw filters contaminated water into clean, safe drinking water. It won multiple awards and featured in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It is an amazing invention that can bring safety life source of water to all the human beings.

If we take a look at the market segment where people who might need to drink water directly from contaminated river or outdoor, is this product offered at the price that this group can easily afford?

Another potential market segment might be people who enjoy outdoor activities. However, do they need this product? It might be useful, but is it better enough to replace water in a plastic container? It might be nice to have in a survival kit, but is it a must-have? How often do outdoor enthusiasts face a situation that they have to drink water from natural resources?

To me, it is a great example of invention but it is not an innovation, due to the lack of market segment for this product.

Now let’s take a look at the example for innovation.

Image link: https://www.dollarshaveclub.com/get-started/plan/shave

Innovation Example:

Dollar shave club that was acquired Uniliver at a value of $1 billion. This is one of the most famous startup success stories because it really focused on business innovation. They did not invent a new product, but re-invented (innovated) the entire shaving ecosystem. Innovation is about market penetration. As Dollar shave club demonstrated, without creating any new product, innovation is still possible.

Now I’d like to bring the story together from UX/CX strategy point of view. The goal of UX/CX strategy is to elevate the value for customers by gathering insights directly from customers and improve and ideate the solution. This method is called customer-centered approach. UX/CX strategy is always trying to create innovation that creates positive impact in people’s lives. The solution can be a product or service or business itself.

I discussed invention vs. innovation from CX strategy point of view. I am interested in hearing what all the readers think about this.

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