Invention or Innovation?

– By Steve Robins

Innovation and Solution Marketing

New inventions are attractive.  They’re fresh, unique, clever, first — superlatives abound.  We admire inventions — and the people and companies that create them.

What’s Wrong?

That’s why many inventors and entrepreneurs are left wondering why their inventions haven’t been more successful.  The reason?  Too often they invent technologies that solve a problem that no one cares about or one that does not justify its expense.   Or perhaps they solve a problem but lack the right business model.  Clever and unique as they may be, unsuccessful inventions offer little value to the people who would buy them.  

Input Yes, Feedback No

For example, a young tech company claimed to have gathered input from 50 different enterprises to design their unique invention.  Three years and millions of dollars in development expenses later, not one of those early advisers had purchased the product.  It turns out that the company sought only initial input without following through for continuous feedback as they actually built the product.  So when the invention hit the market, it failed to provide the benefits the early advisers would have needed.  No benefit, no purchase, no customer.

The Invention No One Wanted

Another company invented a great new technology but couldn’t find a use case for it.  The result: the company folded amid disappointing sales results.  Rather than starting with an invention, the company might still be around today had they focused first on finding and then solving a meaningful business problem.

Solutions Looking for Innovation

Rather than focusing on inventions chasing problems, companies should think in terms of solutions looking for innovations.  Think of innovation as an improvement or enhancement to a process.  OK, so innovation may not be as sexy as invention.  But what makes innovation unique is its ability to provide value.  As Saul Kaplan, founder and chief catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory, wrote in Mass High Tech,

Innovation is a better way to deliver value. It is not innovation until value is delivered one customer at a time. Often we don’t have to invent anything new to deliver value or solve a problem. We have to get better at reconfiguring and combining existing capabilities to deliver value.

Or as Wikipedia says,

Invention is the conversion of cash into ideas. Innovation is the conversion of ideas into cash.

They go on to say that

This is best described by comparing Thomas Edison with Nikola Tesla. Thomas Edison was an innovator because he made money from his ideas. Nikola Tesla was an inventor. Tesla spent money to create his inventions but was unable to monetize them. Innovators produce, market and profit from their innovations. Inventors may or may not profit from their work.

The Innovator’s Advantage in Solutions

Innovators have an edge in solutions.  They know that while business problems don’t change all that quickly, the technologies and methods to solve them do indeed change and evolve.  Innovators know that today’s obvious competitors and tomorrow’s stealth competitors alike are all working on the next innovations to solve the same business problems that they already solve today – faster, better, cheaper etc.  So innovators know that they need to continually update their solutions in new ways that add even more value.

E2.0 or E1.1?

E2.0 or E1.1?Another example: recently I attended the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston.  Enterprise 2.0 (E2.0) is the Web 2.0 version of what was previously known as groupware, knowledge management, or collaboration software (among others).  Of course E2.0 does all of the same things – and more – than its predecessors, for example, helping disparate groups to work together across organizational boundaries.  Each time innovative, value-added technologies have emerged, the market has shifted.  Some firms evolve and continue to be relevant like IBM Lotus and Microsoft.  Others fall behind while new ones emerge such as Jive Software and SocialText.  But the same old business problems still apply.  As interesting as the new technologies are on an intellectual level, it’s their business value that will drive sales and enterprise adoption.


So where does this value come from?  Value is the difference between the total cost of a solution and the benefit in the eyes of the customer:

Cheap solution + high benefit = high value

Cheap solution + low benefit = low value.

So innovations can drive greater value by better meeting the needs of customers, by speeding deployment, speeding processes, lowering costs, etc.  It’s not the technology or invention alone that drives value; rather it’s the ability to solve a problem that’s so important to the customer that they’ll willingly part with their hard-earned money and budget.

Technology Alone Does Not Drive Innovation

It’s tempting to think that innovation derives solely from technological inventions.  But what really drives innovation is the application of new technologies or methods – to solve a meaningful business problem and in a better way.  In fact, if you can find a better way to solve a problem without changing the technology, that’s OK too.  So meaningful innovation can come from your sales model, your business model, pricing model, customer support plan, partner ecosystem – just about anywhere as long as it helps the customer to better solve their business problem in a cost-effective manner.

Meaningful innovation can come from just about anywhere as long as it helps the customer to better solve their business problem.

And this is why solutions are so compelling: solutions encompass the entirety of what’s needed to solve the problem – much more than technology alone.  You may not need to provide all aspects of the solution, but by considering the whole, you will open up more opportunities for innovation that ultimately drive revenue and customer loyalty.

Additional resources

Fixing the Mix

Solution Marketing Best Practices

Build a Winning Solution Marketing Strategy



Filed under Case Studies, Innovation, Solution Marketing, Solutions, Value

2 responses to “Invention or Innovation?

  1. Deb

    Your post is so relevant in the world of so much “free” software today. It may be fun to use but would we pay to use it if we had to. It ultimately will come down to a sustainable business model that’s built on cost/value.

    • Steve Robins

      Thanks Deb – great point!

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