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Striking the right balance between innovation and invention

Posting in Design

One of the most important keys to creating successful new products and services is finding a balance between invention and innovation. And this can best be found by making sure creative minds aren't just coming up with cool ideas, but also by teaming up with strategists and business executives to understand their markets. So write Roger Martin, the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, and James Milway, until recently executive director of the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity and the Martin Prosperity Institute at Rotman.

These are their conclusions in the recently published article "User-Driven Innovation: Putting an End to Inventing in the Dark," which appears in the Fall 2012 issue of Rotman magazine. (The piece is not available for free online, but can be downloaded for a fee here.) Martin and Milway argue that companies need to also clearly understand the difference between "innovation" and "invention," which the authors describe as two discrete concepts.

Sure, executives, journalists, engineers, designers, and consumers alike tend to use both terms interchangeably. But Martin and Milway begin their argument by making clear that invention is "the creation or discovery of something new to the world," and is thus different from innovation, which refers to "a new product or process that adds value to somebody's life." The way to balance both? By turning the focus away from only the traditional model of inventor-driven research and toward including a more practical sense of user-driven innovation.

Martin and Milway point to two ways to achieve the latter: Enabling users to do something they couldn't before and lowering the cost of what users are already doing.

In other words, practical innovation involves improving the experiences of many, versus satisfying a creative individual's curiosity. And to engage in such practical innovation, they prescribe shifting such an emphasis on the role of hard science toward the value of marketing and business strategy.

Thankfully, because this is an article about practical innovation, the authors offer tips on how to achieve it by refreshing innovation policies at the government level for a macro view. They suggest creating programs that connect inventors with business people well-versed in markets and potential customers, via business and engineering schools. In addition, they encourage the teaching of innovation skills (including design thinking) earlier than university, and starting in the kindergarten through 12th grade years.

Finally, on a more micro level, they state that the lean start-up model may be the best style of business in which striking a balance between innovation and invention may be possible. Martin and Milway describe lean start-ups (the term was coined by entrepreneur Eric Ries) as "temporary in nature, designed specifically to discover and implement a profitable business model that can start small and be scaled up quickly for commercial success." They point to fast-growing companies that are quick to attract funding, such as Dropbox, an cloud-based file-sharing service, and Grockit, an online test-prepration network for students, as examples. Both rely on fast product development cycles "measured in hours, not years, and is necessarily coupled with customer contact," they write.

The goal of lean start-up thinking is always to make products with real markets to support them after discovering such markets, rather than just pumping out cool, admirably original ideas or even launching slick, functional objects and then trying to convince people to buy them.

And lean start-up thinking isn't just for the young and the ambitious, Martin and Milway conclude. In a time of financial uncertainty and ongoing international economic turmoil, corporations and governments would be wise to learn to think small -- like a lean start-up -- to win big.

Image: Hakan Dahlstrom/Flickr

— By on October 2, 2012, 7:43 AM PST

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure