When does invention become innovation? What distinguishes those who just do lots of stuff from those who are actually trying to solve real problems; who are looking to change the world? More importantly, when you have created fifteen new products or twenty-five improvements to existing products does that make you an innovator or a just an inventor, tinkering on the edges of product technology?
In essence, invention is the process of introducing something new or different. It may be an idea, which is completely new to the world, or it may be an improvement on an existing idea, but whatever it is, the main criteria for inventors is that they ‘do stuff.’ To transform invention into innovation takes three basic criteria. The first is that the idea has to solve a genuine problem. It’s all very well adding some whizzy new application to your product, but if customers were perfectly happy with the previous version and the new application adds nothing to the mix, then it is not an innovative idea.
This brings us on to the second criteria; namely, does your new idea add value to the customer, does it solve a genuine problem or need? If all you are doing is adding to or changing the product simply so that you can say that you are bringing something new to the marketplace then you are not providing the customer with any tangible value and are therefore not innovative. From a purely business perspective the third criteria is the most important of all. Does your idea drive growth for you, the creator? Yes some products may be loss leaders but if what you are doing is purely going to take you down a closed alley then at the end of the day the chance is that the business will suffer.
So on the surface innovation is far more than simply inventing new stuff. But there are two further criteria which will truly define whether an organisation is innovative or is simply going through the motions. The first of these is the elephant in the room, the hidden assumption that never comes up when we’re talking about invention or innovation; namely has someone got there before you.
I’ll give you a quick example. At the recent Global DIY Summit Henning von Boxberg, President of Robert Bosch Power Tools, Germany talked about a product, which they had brought to market and were advertising at the moment, namely a laser measurement tool. Perhaps it was simply the way his speech was structured but the implication was that this new laser tool was an example of Bosch innovation. Now this particular device may have some useful features, but I’m sorry Bosch, laser measuring devices have been around for years and more importantly, with the prevalence of smartphones there are numerous apps available on the marketplace, which can do exactly the same thing and more.
So, whilst Bosch may have invented a new or improved product it has not passed the criteria to turn invention into innovation. In fact, at the summit I came across numerous examples of companies who purported to be innovating simply because they were bringing new or amended products to market. But I also came across some organisations, which understood the value of innovation and were working towards a new model.
One such was Robert Niblock, Chairman and CEO, Lowe’s, USA. Lowe’s has created an innovation lab which is designed to create game-changing customer experiences. As the lab’s website says…
“The pace of change is exponential, creating an imperative for organizations to build core competencies in envisioning the future and developing technology for long-term competitive advantage.”
Lowe’s employees are being challenged to come up with new ways of interacting with customers which will solve real problems and the strategy, leadership and structure are all being focused towards this end. But the company also understands that for true innovation you need to look beyond the confines of your own immediate sphere. To this end Lowe’s is also working with science fiction writers to imagine future and potential business opportunities and to bring them into reality. Ideas developed so far include 3D printing to replace out of stock parts and a ‘star trek’ style Holoroom which enables people to build virtual simulations of rooms in their home, thereby helping them to envisage how new products may look.
This brings me on to the final criteria for innovation and that is that true innovation is not confined to the few, nor is it simply company wide, but it also draws in expertise and experiences from customers, partners, subject matter experts and other third parties. If you want to invent you task your research and development teams to think of stuff, if you want to innovate you charge everyone with seeking out or unearthing genuine problems, needs, wants, desires or opportunities both internal to the organisation and customer focused. Then you enable and empower them, and as we’re talking about DIY, you give them the tools to collaboratively design, develop and launch creative and genuinely innovative solutions.
There’s nothing wrong with invention. After all, way back in time someone invented the wheel. But it was the people who took the wheel and used it to create modes of transport who were the innovators, the future shapers. If you want to invent, carry on. If you want to become innovation leaders, create game-changing differentiation, drive growth and shape the future then perhaps it’s time you got in touch.