Knowing the difference between invention, improvement and innovation is what separates good companies that succeed in existing markets and great companies that create new markets.
How often have you read a corporate website or mission statement that says something like, “Our inventions create innovative solutions that improve lives.” My guess is you’ve never heard that from a successful company. Knowing the difference between invention, improvement and innovation is the critical distinction between good companies that succeed in existing markets and great companies that create new markets.
Invention is the art of creating something new. Improvement advances a concept, technology or product. Innovation invokes fundamental change — in a product category, in a market or in the way that people conduct business or live their lives. Innovation is not typically something new, but rather an intersection of ideas and technologies that coalesce in the right way, at the right time, in ways that effect fundamental change.
Take the smartphone. IBM and Bell South literally invented the first smartphone called Simon in 1994, yet they could not convert this ground-breaking invention into a new market category. Then two major improvements came together to advance the wide adoption of mobile technology — Palm’s introduction of the first personal digital assistance (PDA), the Pilot, and RIM’s launch of the Blackberry, which changed simple paging to a must-have business tool. True innovation didn’t occur until 13 years after Simon, when Apple released the iPhone, creating a multibillion-dollar hardware and application market.
There are lots of reasons for the success of the iPhone, but the core innovation was harnessing — or improving — a range of existing technologies to create new value. For better or worse, the smartphone connects people, information and ideas in ways that change how we live our lives and conduct business. It’s innovation, not just invention.
Wiring Innovation Into Our Businesses
So if we accept the distinction between invention, improvement and innovation, how can we apply that knowledge to effect change in our businesses? You might argue that not every company can be Apple or build market-changing technology — I’d argue that you’re wrong.
Creating innovation at the intersection of other technologies is not a new concept. Guttenberg harnessed the principles of embossing coins and a wine press to create the printing press. Even the light bulb was inspired by Edison’s understanding of a vacuum pump to remove oxygen from the bulb.
Innovation, simply stated, is an opportunity to look at old problems in new ways. There’s been a lot written about the many ways to foster an environment of innovation, but let me suggest two:
- One, start by defining the problem, not seeking a solution;
- Two, ask the right questions.
Early developers of search engines defined their solution as a way to “collect and deliver” online information. Google redefined the problem as, “How do people look for and harness information?” That led to the right question: “How can we synthesize 3,000 answers into 10 meaningful and insightful information resources?” That question, at the core of Google’s advanced algorithm, drove innovation that today touches almost every person and business across the earth.
At GE’s Critical Power business, our computing and communications customers need AC-to-DC power conversion components that deliver more power in the same footprint — from a printed circuit board (PCB) all the way up to a server cabinet. The obvious “solution” to the problem would seem to be smaller power components.
Yet, when we listened to our customers, we redefined the problem as “giving back vital PCB real estate needed to increase processing capacity.” That led to the right questions. Instead of asking, “Can we make this smaller?” it’s, “Can we take power supplies off the processing part of a PCB and place power components in previously unusable space?” That’s the question that drives a core design philosophy we call Designing in the Negative Space — which has launched a series of power conversion devices that reside on top of, underneath or alongside previously unusable PCB and server rack space.
Understanding the real problem first, and asking new “What if instead?” questions fundamentally changes how we transform conventional power design constraints — such as mechanical, thermal or feature-set challenges — into innovative power solutions.
Wiring that kind of thinking into a design process is what moves us from invention and step improvement to real innovation that garners real change.
(All brand names mentioned in this article are the registered trademarks of their respective companies.)
Dr. Karim Wassef, general manager for Embedded Power, GE’s Critical Power business, works with telecommunications and data center customers to provide advanced power solutions that support massive communications, network and computing capacity. As a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff with Lucent Power, he introduced multiple patents and technologies before transitioning to commercial leadership under Tyco Electronics and Lineage Power, and now GE’s Critical Power business. To learn more about GE’s Critical Power business visit www.gecriticalpower.com