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Posted by Tom Grant on March 6, 2009
It's not clear when it happened, but at some point in the history of the technology industry, people lost the distinction between invention and innovation. While insisting on the difference between the two words may seem like a minor semantic difference, it's as fundamental as distinguishing between speed and velocity as the same thing. In fact, mixing up invention and innovation is potentially as dangerous as confusing chemicals and medicines, if you prescribe one when you really need the other.
Both Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison were inventors. However, Edison was the better innovator. Fannish biographies of Tesla that complain about history's indifference to Tesla's genius are missing the point. Even if everything Tesla had invented exceeded Edison's in brilliance, Edison was much better at getting his inventions developed, sold, and distributed. (Throw in Tesla's unproven inventions, like the death ray and ion-powered aircraft, too, if you want.)
The story of Edison and Tesla should be iconic for today's technology industry, but it's not. Instead, many (perhaps most) technology companies act as though invention is all they need. When they face challenges--from competitors, the economy, or customer rejection--these vendors reflexively turn to invention as the solution. Increase features in the product, add new products, add new service offerings--these are inventions that, ipso facto, people will not necessarily adopt.
Over the years, I've worked with a few veterans of Ingres who voiced a complaint that sounds a lot like the grudge Tesla fans hold against Edison. Ingres, they believed, was the better database, far superior in features and design than its chief competitor, the Oracle RDBMS. Y'know, they may be right--and that conclusion, however justified, would be irrelevant. Oracle's advantages, such as its famously aggressive salesforce, decided the issue.
You might conclude from the Oracle-Ingres battle that the technologists and salespeople just need to keep on executing for the company to be successful. For a variety of reasons, innovation is much trickier.
Inventions Are Not Projectiles
For example, Development can't just throw new technology over the wall to Marketing and Sales, and expect good things to happen. Someone always needs to mediate between Development and Sales. In the technology industry, that job function is spread across product managers, product marketers, sales engineers, and people in other roles. Activity in this middle layer needs to flow both ways, tuning the invention to better fit the market, as well as getting the invention sold and implemented.
Once you disentangle invention from innovation, many fallacies of the technology industry fall out. For example, being the first to market with an invention isn't necessarily the best strategy. To go back to the computer game industry for a moment, LucasArts often followed in the draft of other companies that invented new types of games (air combat simulators, graphical adventure games, etc.). Learning from their competitors' successes and mistakes, LucasArts was often happy to be the second to market.
So, the next time you hear someone praised as an innovator, ask yourself, Is this person really an inventor? And if so, who helped turn the invention into an innovation?
[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]
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