Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

Invention isn’t innovation

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 11, 2008

When I run workshops I often ask people to name their favourite innovation or, depending on how the mood takes me, their favourite innovator.  I don’t ask them to name their favourite invention, because there is a big difference between the two things. (If you’d like to join in the fun, click on the ‘comments’ link under the title or at the end of the post, depending on how you’re reading this and tell us what your favourite invention is and why. You don’t have to use your real name, incidentally.)

December 17th, 1903

December 17th, 1903

There is also a big difference between inventors and innovators. An innovation is an invention that has been implemented in such a way that it changes the world.  It might change the world a little, or change it a lot, but it has to change the world in some way.  A more formal definition, and one that might appeal more to the bean counters in your organisation, is an idea that ‘adds value’, to use some management-speak.

My all-time favourite innovation is powered flight and my all time favourite innovators are, therefore, Orville and Wilbur Wright.  I like both flying and aircraft.  When I was a child, my favourite birthday treat was to go to Heathrow airport for the day.  (Heathrow for the day! Little did I know that, a little over 40 years hence, I would think of a trip to Heathrow as my definition of hell.  But things have changed there a little since then, and so have I.)

I’ll return to the Wright Brothers at some point, but for now I’ll just note that when I mention to people who aren’t from the USA they sometimes say ‘Ah but we [insert name of nation other than the US] invented powered flight when [insert name of person/people no one has ever heard of] flew on [insert date before December 17th, 1903]’.

If I really want to make myself unpopular with my interlocutor, I grab the nearest whiteboard and write ‘Inventor = someone who had an idea Innovator = someone who had an idea and did something with it.” The non-US national in question then gets all sulky and/or angry and never talks to me again.

The Wright Brothers were innovators par excellence.  They did all the right things.  They knew, when they were developing their machines, that powered flight had enormous commercial potential.  We don’t just remember them because they were good publicists (and they were good publicists).  They founded the Wright Company to exploit their idea commercially and thought of some highly innovative ways of promoting their innovation.

I could witter on for pages (tell me about it, you may well be thinking, if you’ve actually plodded through my earlier witterings) about the Wright Brothers.

As I said in an earlier post I still find flying magical, in spite of the ‘my definition of hell’ parts, and these aren’t to do with the flying itself but with the large international airports flying tends to involve.  I see, incidentally, that you still – months later – have a 1 in 12 chance of being separated from your luggage if you fly via Terminal 5.  If only Orville and Wilbur had anticipated that problem: I’m sure that they would have come up with a very elegant solution.

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3 Responses to “Invention isn’t innovation”

  1. […] Anyway, if I’m going to be called a mad anything, I’d rather be called a mad innovator than a mad inventor, for reasons I explained in this post. […]

  2. […] Bisociation Posted July 11, 2008 Filed under: Uncategorized | A quick postscript to that last post. […]

  3. […] Read this post to find out how I distinguish between inventions and innovations.  My nuclear powered tea-pot idea is an invention which still, sadly, only exists in my head (and now, of course, yours).  It’s not actually an innovation yet, but as soon as our local Tesco Extra starts selling enriched uranium – and that’s surely only a matter of time, since they sell just about everything else – I’ll be able to start building it. […]

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