Invent. Innovate. Improve. Do Any Three.

lightbulb-Gluehlampe_01_KMJInnovation is at a peak of interest.

In fact, I’m speaking about it in 6 weeks, when I chair the luncheon panel for the CIO Summit at the annual Innotech conference in Austin.

This surge in innovation’s stock seems to occur every 15-20 years, like the price of gold. And that’s fine, because I’m a big fan of innovation.

However, a pet peeve I have is when people begin speaking about it in a muddy way.

Often, when I hear someone describe their innovation goals, they are really speaking about improvement, not innovation. This is especially true for larger companies.

Or, on the other hand, occasionally someone will be speaking about invention.

These 3 terms are related, but different. In short, here are their definitions:

  • Invent – to create or produce (something useful) for the first time.
  • Innovate – to change something that is established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.
  • Improve – to make or become better.

To innovate does not mean you are inventing. In fact, some would argue that my inserting the “(something useful)” qualifier for inventing is inappropriate, because there have been plenty of useless inventions throughout history. [I tend to think of those as interesting, but failed, experiments.]

The reason I get modestly peeved about this topic, is because the unspoken outcome of an innovation initiative is that it gets all of the attention.

In fact, all 3 topics are worthy of attention, create value, and are necessary for long-term organizational success, if one wants to be best-of-class.

But, because they are different, they require:

  • different processes for assimilation into the organization,
  • different metrics for determining progress, and
  • different skills & experience from the staff & management involved in advancing them.

Six_sigma-2.svg-2000pxYou can outsource invention, by using a 3rd party like XPrize or Innocentive. You can’t outsource improvement, like a Six Sigma program.

Innovation tends to get the greatest attention, because it seems more in reach, returning greater rewards to those that can “crack the code” on a successful innovation initiative.

But, my advice is to find a way to fund all 3; never lose sight of the rewards of invention and improvement.