Invention vs Innovation

“None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What is boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” – Thomas Edison

“If Edison had a needle in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. … I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety percent of his labor.” – Nikola Tesla

Sir Harold Evans made a strong and powerful argument for the importance of the commercialization of ideas in his recent RSA lecture. He stated that, “Innovation is not simply invention or discovery, it is invention or discovery brought to use”. Sir Harold argues that invention without innovation is just a pastime, and regrets the history of innovations in the UK which have been made innovations in other countries (especially the US). Interestingly, patent statistics are often a poor indicator of innovation and entrepreneurship, with fewer than 10% of patents leading to any kind of commercial application (by some estimates).

In their short introduction to Innovation, Mark Dodgson and David Gann use a similar definition of Innovation as, “ideas, successfully applied”. I love this simple and clear definition, and as they show with examples of Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Edison (Sir Harold also talks about Thomas Edison), successful innovation is also about hard work, and more importantly, about creating an Innovation culture within a company or group of people. Sir Harold is very strong is his condemnation of the “cult” of the Eureka moment, and history shows that breakthroughs always needs more than one “genius” individual in order to truly transform other people’s lives.

There are many examples in the lecture and the book. Thomas Edison had 3,000 failed experiments with the incandescent lamp before he made something that worked. Incidentally, Edison also made innovation into an industry, with a team of differently skilled people, and investment in the all the latest science and technology. James Dyson made 5,127 prototypes (yes that’s right – there were 5,126 failed prototypes!) of his vacuum before he hot on the right design. The Wright brothers experimented for years before they hit on the secret of flight (and the inspiration came from the importance of balance in riding a bicycle, their day job).

Josiah Wedgwood’s example is the most inspiring, as he really combined innovation, commercial and managerial talents, establishing a highly successful company and infrastructure, created new products which were valued highly by his customers, developed huge export markets for his products, was influential in developing government policy to support business, and was acknowledged by the Royal Society for his contributions to science. He was truly a pioneer of marketing, and arguably hundreds of years ahead of current design thinking in combining scientific and artistic principles to create products which with high functional and aesthetic value. He was a constant innovator, experimenting endlessly with new techniques, materials and designs, and used the motto, “Everything yields to experiment”. He identified multiple incremental and disruptive innovations, but most importantly created a company with a culture and infrastructure to support innovation, using flexible production techniques and outsourcing, as well as multi-skilled team to support his efforts. He transformed the porcelain business from a small cottage industry into a huge international business. Finally, he was a pioneer of “open innovation”, creating a network of collaborators both within and outside his own industry.

What is the lesson for innovation? Innovation is about more than ideas. Innovation is a continuous process, requiring a system for creating and delivering commercialized ideas, in terms of new products, processes and partnerships which can deliver value to customers.

If you do that, then you’ll really fly!


Innovation: A very short introduction by Mark Dodgson & David Gann

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