The difference between innovation and invention

Roger La Salle
Tags: business management

Big “i” or little “i” - What’s it to be?

 

A revealing statistic! In a recent book called "Creating Wealth" by Lester Thurow, some interesting statistics are cited.

“In the 1920s, the life expectancy of a publicly listed company in the USA was some 65 years, by the 1990s this figure has fallen to less than 10 years. Of the companies forming the original list of the Standard and Poor's Index, only one, General Electric, still survives today, and to do so GE has had to constantly re-invent themselves to remain relevant.”

Innovation vs. Invention
Interestingly, some of the less initiated in this business often use the word innovator interchangeably with inventor. This is often done in a polite and misguided endeavor to differentiate the person in question from the classic stereotypical inventor, represented as some excentric weirdo with fuzzy white hair wearing a white dust coat.

In fact innovation and invention are different.

Whereas innovation may be defined as “change that adds value”, invention may be perhaps best defined as something “new, novel and without precedent”.

Notwithstanding the above, most inventions are in fact created by making improvements to existing things. Indeed there are few totally new inventions.

However, whereas novelty is an essential part of an invention, novelty is not an essential part of an innovation.

Big ‘I’ and Little ‘i’
When it comes to understanding innovation further, some texts refer to so called big “I”, and little “I”.

The former refers to big or disruptive innovations that totally change the landscape of a business, its products or the dynamics of the market. In contrast, little “i” refers more to incremental changes or improvements to businesses and products.

In theory, or more likely with the benefit of hindsight, many thinkers and writers on the subject refer to big “i” as essential for businesses to survive for the longer terms. The push is for businesses to “disrupt” themselves and radically change for the better following in the footsteps of companies cited as case studies that have successfully done so.

Rear Vision is a wonderful thing!
NOKIA is one exceptional example of a company that successfully migrated its core business from timber to electronics. They did this after they saw the growing resistance to the use of the dwindling natural timber resource and the emergence of the new mobile phone business with almost unlimited market potential. This is a wonderful success story operating on the big “I” model.

General Electric is another company that has reinvented itself to become strong in the financial sector. However, in doing so GE took the safe option in that whilst creating its new enterprise it did not turn its back on its traditional engineering business, instead it used its brand strength to underpin the new endeavor.

Many texts refer to these case studies as a blueprint for the future and an endorsement of big “I” as the means to renewed riches as companies model themselves on the NOKIA style of rebirth. Unfortunately, all of these case studies are just that, studies in hindsight of a few “stars” that have successfully crossed the bridge to new horizons.

Rear vision is a wonderful thing, but if one looks at the history of disruptive pioneers you will find the path littered with the corpses of those who dared to be first with disruptions but failed, as is so often the case. The problem is that these pioneers are seldom heard from.

Consider some of the so called disruptive technologies that have either failed, or undergone a very difficult and expensive birth.

The ill-fated COMET jet passenger airliner, a revolution in its day, plagued with technology problems whose ultimate solutions enabled Boeing, untarnished by the pioneering COMET failures, to win the world market for passenger jets. Concorde is another example of a technology before its time. Ultimately supersonic passenger transport will become commonplace, but not to the benefit of the Concorde pioneers.

Even the ubiquitous computer took many years to be adopted by the greater community. Indeed had it not been for the development of both word processing and spreadsheets, computers today would be little more than scientific novelties and platforms for games.

So, too, the computer mouse which was a complete novelty when first conceived in 1968. In fact, it was some 13 years before this disruption in the way we use computers was actually commercialised.

Similarly for the Internet, this was possibly one of the most disruptive technologies of the 20th century and has revolutionised the way business is conducted worldwide. But it was the application developers, not the creators, who have won the rich spoils offered by this disruption.

Failure is more the norm
There are countless examples of pioneers who failed with disruptive ventures and seldom rate a mention in the end game. Unfortunately, too often we are encouraged to follow the path of the very few successful winners who steal the limelight, as they should. But be warned, these people are few and far between.

What about little ‘i’?
The “incrementalists” are the little “i” operators and there would be no better example than the car makers. Incrementally these people release face lifted new models with perhaps just one tiny added feature almost annually. They do this for no other purpose than to render your current model obsolete and to keep you continually upgrading to the newer one.

The cell phone and computer games companies are also wonderful exponents at this art, and what abut Microsoft? None of us can even use all the features of Windows 98, yet we still get a new, non backward compatible supposedly more featured version every couple of years. Indeed Microsoft even today, still owns this market and drives it through incremental innovation.

There can be no doubt that little “i” is far easier to manage than big “i”; and little “i” carries far less risk.

So what is it to be? 

For my money, little “i” wins pretty well every time. However, if you do wish to have a go at investing in a disruption, use the tried and tested “outrigger model”, as discussed in my previous insight, as this certainly mitigates much of the risk.

About the author:
Roger La Salle is the creator of the "Matrix Thinking" technique and is widely sought after as an international speaker on Innovation, Opportunity and business development. He is the author of three books, director and former CEO of the Innovation Centre of Victoria (INNOVIC), as well as a number of companies both in Australian and overseas. He has been responsible for a number of successful technology start-ups and in 2004 was a regular panelist on the ABC “New Inventors” TV program. In 2005, he was appointed to the "Chair of Innovation" at “The Queens University" in Belfast. For more information, visit www.matrixthinking.com


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