What really matters – Invention or Innovation?

One of the joys of having children is that they ask a lot of questions. Even though many of their questions are so fundamental in nature, they often force us adults to go back to the drawing board and re-learn the basics all over again. It is also a constant reminder to many of us, especially in the super-hyped-up business world, to simplify our communication  to the bare essentials.

My oldest son (11) recently asked me – “Whats the difference between invention and innovation”.  When I blurted out what must have been a confusing and garbled response, the bewildered look on his face convinced me that I needed to dig a bit deeper and be more precise and crisp.

Thanks to Google, here’s what I found:

An important distinction is normally made between invention and innovation. Invention is the first occurrence of an idea for a new product or process while innovation is the first attempt to carry it out into practice.

What is captured in this definition is the concept of innovation being the actualization or realization of an invention whether it be a societal benefit, commercialization, market entry or monetization.”

By this definition, the first light bulb was an invention, while the electricity grid complete with the distribution ecosystem for illuminating homes was the true innovation that scaled and commercialized it for the masses.

In the modern context there is no better example than that of Apple. Apple didnt invent the first mp3 player or the first mobile phone, but innovated around it by creating a universe of entertainment options and applications to disrupt entire industries and monetization strategies benefiting soceity as a whole. Its “innovation” strategy is likely to continue.

Counter to what we may believe, a recent article from the Economist claimed that although there is an abundance of inventions (and corresponding patents) like smartphones, big-data, nano-technologies, and 3-D printing  occuring today, the rate of global innovation overall is in fact slowing.

Many business leaders looking for growing their business can learn a valuable lesson by understanding this nuanced difference between invention and innovation.

That markets typically reward innovation much more than inventions.

Therefore, its not about asking your teams to come up with the next big idea. Its about connecting several big-ideas together, commercializing those ideas at scale, making them consumable for socio-economic benefit that really matters.

A full circle to where I started my research. On Google, an amazing innovator.

On to my next research on another question – “Whats the difference between a Cook and a Chef?”

Comments welcome.



  1. A very nicely drawn distinction, Vivek. I have tried to draw a similar distinction when talking with inventors, stating that an invention is not a business. Keep answering your kids’ questions!


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