#2 : Innovation and Invention
Listen to the audio version here, if you prefer.
The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.
When I worked at Qlik Technologies, I was latterly the VP of Innovation and Design, a title I chose myself. After I left, Elif Tutuk took on that title until recently and I was tremendously happy to see her take the role further. And during my time there, Qlik was listed by Forbes as one of the world’s Top 10 Most Innovative Growth Companies. Recently, I wrote a little book for clients, called Innovating, which I will be sending to paid subscribers a small thank you.
So, when I say that the term innovation is overused, I am not shouting from the sidelines. I have skin in the game, as they say. What then, do I think has gone wrong, if anything?
In part, the trouble is that when everyone claims to be innovative, the distinctiveness of that expression is diluted. The marketing material of data and analytics vendors (to take my own sector) portrays the industry as a roiling cauldron of new ideas constantly disrupting the status quo. In the real world, there’s a rather steady progress of incremental improvement.
Yet we all, as vendors, claim to be innovative. It comes from a deep aspiration to be different, to stand out, to be the exceptional choice, rather than the most opportune or convenient or cheapest option. In fact, I suspect innovation is like humility. If you have to claim it for yourself, you probably don’t have it. So, is there an alternative?
Very likely if you learned to play the piano - and especially to play counterpoint - you would have tackled some of Bach’s Two Part Inventions. These delightful little compositions were intended as studies to teach particular performance techniques. But they are also playful pieces, which experiment with ideas and illustrate some clever methods and patterns. They are, indeed, inventive.
This recording of the last Invention in B Minor by the Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson nicely shows the clever skilful spirit at work.
This is what I think we lack in business …
We are so determined to claim innovation that we miss out on the playfulness of invention.
Does invention no longer sound serious enough? Certainly, from this chart, drawn by Google’s Ngram service from their massive collection of digitised text sources, you can see how the term has fallen out of favour compared to innovation over the last 40 years. Back in the 19th century, Invention was the primary term.
The title of this blog and podcast is Creative Differences and this is a good example of how we can use a difference in terms to be more incisively, purposefully creative.
In my work on innovation strategy I use a specific definition that I find useful.
Innovation is fresh work that emerges from radical answers to the basic questions of our craft.
I go into this in a lot more detail in my book, but for our purposes here please note this is not intended as a dictionary definition. It’s a working rule of thumb which may help us make progress when we are stuck.
The key elements here are the basic questions - who, what, why, where, when and how - which we can ask in almost any situation along with the need for radical not just different answers. If we find we can address a basic question in a radical way, we’re on the path to innovation.
How do I juggle all these different chargers, power cords, headsets and services for my devices like music players, GPS, phone and camera? The radical answer was: there is one device - the iPhone - which is “Your life in your pocket. The ultimate digital device.” And now with satellite connectivity? That is also radical.
Who builds business intelligence applications? The radical answer: everyone does, with self-service.
Where do I store and manage this vast amount of data? You don’t. You upload it to a cloud service and they handle the storage.
These are radical innovations.
Invention on the other hand needs a more playful definition. My Chambers dictionary defines inventive as: showing imaginative skill.
That sounds good. There’s skill involved and imagination, both on display. Bearing in mind that we’re not trying to define the life out of these terms, we now have a useful distinction we can make.
Using a creative difference
How would this distinction be useful in practice?
Our marketing material may be fresher. We are a constantly inventive company certainly sounds less clichéd and ponderous than the alternative. Perhaps it also sounds less threatening: not everyone wants to be disrupted, even when we do want nice new things.
Imagine a product planning meeting where we are asked not to be innovative in the next version, but to be inventive in our approaches. Don’t you think that frees up our imagination, encourages us to display our skill?
We can use a question as a challenge …
What are we doing in this project? Innovating or inventing? If we are meant to be innovating then perhaps this concept at hand is not radical enough. But if we are inventing, perhaps we can play with some ideas, be a little more daring here and a little more colourful there.
Innovation has its place: closely linked to strategy. As John Kao has said:
Innovation without strategy is motion without direction.
To be innovative it is not enough to have new ideas, we need to have a process and a discipline to handle the complex issues raised by a radical transformation.
Sometimes we just need to be inventive. The secret is knowing when to reach for each tool in our toolbox. If we can tell the difference - the creative difference - then we’re on our way to being successful.
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