THUNDER BAY – Perhaps no other corporate mandate has received as much attention over the past decade as Innovation. The term has become ubiquitous in business. Even companies that simply retail goods produced by others throw the term innovation in their name and use it to market their services. Working for an Innovation Centre I hear this term tossed around by politicians and bureaucrats regularly and I don’t think we stop to ever ask the question, what exactly is innovation? Despite this crush of interest and the endless flood of new products and services into the marketplace, there remains a significant lack of understanding about innovation. A company that is well managed with the best business people in the world can’t sell something the world isn’t ready to use.
People don’t buy inventions.
They don’t buy technology. They buy a solution to a perceived problem.
And if you have the greatest solution in the world and people don’t perceive it as the answer to their problem, they are not going to spend their hard earned cash on it.
Misconceptions about the invention process lead directly to the absence of understanding about when an invention becomes an innovation. The lay person loves an easy to understand, one-shot answer. The truth is invention is a messy process which is more of an evolution than a revolution. The window between invention and innovation is the dark unknown valley in which most inventors end up toiling in frustration. Many people I meet with here have been tinkering with some iteration of their invention for several years (some even decades). And after all the conceiving, designing, building, refining and polishing, an invention still remains a great distance from an innovation.
Even in the biggest most well capitalized companies on the planet (3M, Johnson & Johnson) innovation often happens not by detailed strategic planning, but rather by experimentation, trial and error, opportunism and yes sometimes by total accident. Most inventors are not good business people, but the reason many fail is not because they are poor business people. They fail because they misunderstand the difference between invention and innovation. There is an enormous gap between the two, and it is the public that adjudicates if an invention has the influence and sustainability to become a true innovation.
The day after Thomas Edison created the light bulb everybody read about it by the candles they had been using for thousands of years. If I were alive then and was looking at investments as I do today I would have scoffed at this invention. Who had electricity to power a light bulb? It was expensive and lacked supporting infrastructure.
Similarly the day after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk people rode into towns on horseless carriages (automobiles as I’ve heard some call them) to read about it in a newspaper.
The airplane and light bulb are inventions, but the innovation is the process by which those inventions start to affect the way people live, think and make use of the technology. People often underestimate the incredible marketing, public relations and word of mouth required not to mention the patience and persistence. People innately resist change and most of us are happy doing things the way they were done before. In fact, the invention may only slightly improve the ability to do what they were doing before. The key difference between invention and innovation is that true innovation allows people to do things they never thought about doing before.
The automobile is a great example of this. At the time of its invention most people thought of it merely as a horseless carriage, a simple analog of what they were already doing. But it wasn’t, automobiles allow us to do things we could never imagine doing with horse drawn carriages.
I remember when personal computers first came in to the marketplace and people viewed them as merely a digital typewriter. But it wasn’t just an electronic typewriter. Now people could search entire documents, move blocks of text around with a mouse click and hundreds of other functions that they could never conceive of doing before. It can take a long time to educate the masses that an invention is not simply an analog of what they were previously doing before.
Hands down nobody has done this better than Steve jobs of Apple. From the Apple Lisa to the iPod, iTunes, iPhone and now the iPad he has an Edison like ability to show immense consumer markets how and why his products will allow them to do things they once thought not possible.
I wish I had a formula to give people but unfortunately there is no perfect answer. Every type of innovation has its own uniqueness. For example medical innovation is usually quite clear. It didn’t take a master strategist to show people the pain point being solved by the polio vaccine or insulin.
These inventions filled dramatic, glaring needs and thus rapidly gained widespread acceptance. But inventions, with some rare exceptions, often end up being used in ways that are a small subset of what makes them a big idea. The key question is when will it happen? And perhaps more important: who will find it, not just financially but philosophically and emotionally? Who will benefit from using it?
The Innovation Centre acts as a pivotal player in growing Northwestern Ontario’s innovation capacity. We offer support to innovative entrepreneurs, businesses, and community projects in the region of Northwestern Ontario. In addition, the Centre seeks out new approaches to improve, enhance and invigorate a commercialization system in our region. By encouraging ongoing cooperation between business, education and government, the Centre is a driving force to improve economic vitality.
Located in Thunder Bay on Lakehead University campus, the Centre prides itself on creating linkages, engaging entrepreneurs, supporting management, training people, accessing markets, developing and implementing businesses plans, sourcing financing and building success!