Invention versus Innovation

I enjoy meeting with people and helping them develop their business concepts. I tend to relate what they are trying to do with my various life experiences. When I do this, however, it is inevitable that I get a question like this, “Jim you’ve invented this and that. How do you come up with all of this stuff?” My answer to this question is that I am not an Inventor, I am an Innovator. My success hasn’t been in creating new things, but in making things that already exist better.

I suppose my answer sounds like semantics, but my intent is to change the paradigm of how they think about developing new business ideas and concepts. It is stressful for a new entrepreneur to create a product from thin air and make it commercially viable. I’ve found that they often eliminate solutions and concepts that are right in front of them. The goal is to get them to think about taking existing technologies that have already had time to mature and devise new ways to use them. Time to market is the key. The longer you wait to get an idea to market the more likely someone else will.

Invention versus Innovation

Invention is the act of creating something ‘new’, while innovation is the process of taking an existing concept or product and making it more relevant to the consumer of that product – better if you will. Invention is easy. A four year old can draw a picture of floating cities and flying saucers. The majority of great inventors throughout history were not inventors at all, they were innovators. Alexander Graham Bell didn’t invent the telephone; Samuel Morse didn’t invent the Telegraph; Thomas Edison invented neither the light bulb, nor the movie camera. All understood the value of the concepts and tweaked them, sometimes for decades continuously to create success in the marketplace.

I have been successful in my career because I have focused on becoming a subject matter expert in as many diverse systems as I can (e.g. finance, hr, telecom, networks, crm, sfa, software development, etc.) and then I use this knowledge to rapidly develop “out of the box” solutions to problems. It isn’t rocket science, but it is very effective. I tend to look at a problem differently than most. I approach every issue with an open mind and apply what I know about the various systems to devise a solution. I also do NOT take ‘NO’ for an answer. My personal problem solving goal is “To have three solutions to every problem.” I pick three because it increases my success rate while keeping me focused on creating workable solutions (not a brainstorming session).

Creating a working solution, however, is not the end. It is only the beginning. To stay on top you must continually refine your innovations. Little by little. Google, for example, has applied over 500 changes to their search engine so far this year. By the time they release a new product to the world they have 100+ more queued up (see Google Labs) and ready to go. Not every one of the 500 changes Google has made is necessarily hard, but each one is intended to systematically make their product better. There ya go. I have just relieved the secret to how Google became the 800 lb Gorilla in the room…

NOTE: The technical name for Google’s development process is Agile Software Development. The strategy behind Agile development is to frequently introduce small changes instead of undertaking “big-bang” large deployment efforts. This is a methodology that keeps innovative company’s innovating while minimizing risk to the environment. Small changes introduce less risk and are easier to back out.

An example of how I applied this process is when I created Airline delay/cancel alerts for Orbitz and sent them to our customers via an automated phone call seconds after a change was introduced (often before Airline gate personal even know about it). We were the first company ever to do this and it put us light years ahead of our competitors. I certainly didn’t invent an automated outbound call. What I did was integrate airline systems, our customer database and the phone to provide a solution to a business objective. And the best part is that it took 45 days form conceiving the idea to going into full production!

Project overview: The Orbitz guiding principal has always been to be #1 in customer service. Providing industry-leading customer service is our key differentiator. The business objective I solved with the automated alerts (Care Alerts) was to provide that high-touch personalized customer service without having to individually call millions of customers when a flight schedule is unexpectedly changed. We simply could not do it in a timely manor. The customer care alerting project has been cited numerous times over the years as one of the key reasons why we have been ranked #1 in service by the Customer Respect Group and many others. The care alerting system also established the foundation for the OrbitzTLC program and spawned many other business initiatives.

In summary, to create a new business or idea you do not need to invent something new. It is as easy as improving a process or integrating existing systems in better ways. The easiest way to do this is to identify a problem that someone is having and devise a unique way to fix it. Businesses will pay good money to resolve an issue — especially when it is costing them money or hampering their ability to achieve a business objective.

Chicago CIO and Entrepreneur. Started @Orbitz, @AssureFlight, Team ITG, YourPrivateLine and others. I Love technology, startups and meeting interesting people.

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