Invention vs Innovation – 4 Must-Have Skills

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"Necessity is the mother of invention, it is true, but its father is creativity, and knowledge is the midwife." -- Jonathan Schattke, scientist

Innovation and invention are often used interchangeably yet they are two very distinct practices.  Invention is the discovery of a new process or device.  Invention is more likely to be patentable and will take years to develop until it is ready for prime time.  Innovation is a new way of doing something in your business or in your industry.  A business may be founded on an invention but to continue to thrive, it will need to be always pursing innovation both in the way it operates and in the way it serves its customers.

R&D is responsible for developing, maintaining and growing a company’s invention.  This doesn’t mean that all invention is technological – think McDonald’s invention of a repeatable system that ensured the same experience for customers around the world.  It also doesn’t mean that all businesses are founded on a patentable invention; often they are applying an existing invention to a new market or new customer.  But at the heart of growing businesses, R&D will be nurturing and evolving a company’s core products and services.

Innovation (def): looking for better ways to operate and serve customers

Innovation by contrast is a business looking for better ways to operate and serve their customers.  A true innovation arises from solving a customer problem in a unique way.  And there is the crucial difference between innovation skills and R&D: innovation is all about customer problem solving and invention is about creating new solutions, sometimes in absence of a problem that needed solving, the proverbial hammer looking for a nail.   When I was in R&D at Hewlett-Packard, we were excellent at designing and building solutions.  But we often relied on others to help us discover the problems worth solving by our team.  We certainly worked on improving our own operation, and part of what made our R&D team stand out was the way that we executed.  But our core skill was inventing the nuts and bolts of the product our business was delivering.

Skills Required to Innovate

So what kind of skills are required of innovators?  Certainly, customer problem discovery and analysis are core.  These skills are more likely to be found in behavioral researchers or anthropologists than technologists.  These are the people that know how to ask the right questions and listen deeply for the needs that motivate customers to do things in that sometimes crazy, mixed up way.  They also have statistical skills, being able to assess qualitative and quantitative data to drive decisions about how they meet those customer needs.  And they need to have design skills, the ability to see how to craft solutions that are simple, elegant and useful.  Finally, they need to be great collaborators, because above all else, innovation is a team sport.

I believe that these skills are present in a wide variety of people, but they need to be nurtured and developed.  Unfortunately, they are not taught in elementary school and only true liberal arts degrees provide formal teaching in this kind of holistic approach.  The good news is these innovation skills are something that can and should be learned more through applied knowledge than formal learning.  Here are some ways to build innovation skills in yourself and your team:

  • The next time you brainstorm, focus on problem discovery rather than idea generation.  MIT asserts problem formulation is the single most underrated skill in management
  • Use some of the design thinking tools in Jeanne Liedka’s book, “Designing for Growth” and the accompanying “Designing for Growth Field Book”. A good collaborative exercise is to create a gallery of empathy interviews to bring your team and leadership through to immerse them in your customer’s world.
  • Take an introductory design thinking course from Stanford’s d.School, IDEO or Acumen. These will teach you some of the customer problem discovery skills and give you a structured way to try them out in your business. 
  • Try out a problem discovery cycle with your team by hypothesizing a customer challenge and spending time discovering the needs and pain points that keep your customer for successfully completing their task.  
  • Sign up for our introduction to human centered innovation course, below, a quick 1 week sprint to learn the basics and develop a plan for your first learning loop

Innovation Culture Shift

Building skills and talent different from R&D is the first step towards creating a culture of innovation in your business.  This will require a shift in the behavior of your employees to develop those skills, and in your leadership to recognize and reward customer problem solving.  BJ Fogg’s excellent behavior change model states that there are 3 elements required to effect a change: motivation, ability and prompts. 

  • Motivation: change is hard, and it often requires an emotional trigger to incent people to undergo the journey. To build motivation for an organization to change, leaders will need to clearly show how a culture of innovation will be better for individuals.  One of the most effective ways to do this is to create a “no duh!” vision – a view of the culture after the change that is so compelling that it is harder for individuals to stay where they are than to become something new.  This vision can leverage emotional triggers like fear or social acceptance to help with motivation.
  • Ability: effective skill development is key to change, which requires applied learning so that individuals not only see how to do it but also develop confidence that they have the capability to use those new skills. Corporate training often falls short because it teaches theory without applying it in practice.  Applied learning first teaches new methods and then coaches individuals through applying those methods in their own work.
  • Prompts: a series of simple, elegant well-placed prompts can make the difference between cultural change that fizzles like a firework after a big bang launch or incremental change that builds momentum and sticks. Effective prompts should start with promoting simple changes then celebrate and build on those changes.  And they should include measures of progress that allow for adjustment along the way.

This will require an intentional effort and depending on the size of the organization and complexity of the change, may take a few years to get right. But it is well worth it; companies that make innovation a priority are more profitable  and have more engaged employees. But don’t let the long lead time deter you – get started on your journey to a culture of innovation today with your team.

Are you ready to start your human centered innovation journey?

If you are ready to get started building your culture of innovation today, download our Introduction to Human Centered Innovation eBook. Don't wait; the race is on!