You can’t go a day without seeing another article or white paper on “innovation.” They are strewn across the landscape, luring leaders in companies big and small to come and find their riches or, better yet, the magic bullet to save them from disruption. In most cases, these well-meaning authors define innovation through the lens of an inventor, disruptor or antagonist to the status quo — someone who came up with a better mouse trap that is going to redefine an industry or change the way people work.
As a leader in an established company, it is often difficult to imagine your world in this light while also trying to maintain and grow a successful organization. You don’t have the luxury of starting over or wishing away years of technical debt or structure. For existing companies who want to truly innovate, a different paradigm is needed to build an innovation foundation for your teams to thrive on.
So what is innovation? It can be defined as either 1) The introduction of something new, or 2) a new idea, method or device.
Often this definition is confused with another closely aligned term — invention. The two are not the same, but often these terms are used interchangeably in technical journals, and especially when it comes to internal and external recognition. Both have their purpose and benefits.
“Invention can refer to a type of musical composition, a falsehood, a discovery, or any product of the imagination. The sense of invention most likely to be confused with innovation is “a device, contrivance, or process originated after study and experiment,” usually something which has not previously been in existence.”– Merriam-Webster
In an established organization, it is critical for leadership to understand the difference between innovation and invention, particularly as it pertains to risk. You don’t have to be the first to be successful. Quite to the contrary, you can drive internal innovation by using proven models with far less risk to the business.
At KAR Auction Services, for example, we are a highly technology-enabled organization, and we are working to evolve our industry to meet customer expectations and drive safety into our operations. The projects we find to be the most valuable to our business customers are almost always innovation-based, with a little invention mixed in every now and then.
Following this model, we have gone from a fast follower to a leader in our industry by building on the innovation of others who came before. While each of these steps forward is not an invention in the truest sense, it certainly is highly relevant innovation, and we treat it as such.
For example, in just the past 24 months we have completed a myriad of innovative foundational projects that foster the next step in our innovation framework. Each of these projects has incrementally moved forward our position on a solid foundation, upon which we will foster and accelerate not just innovation but invention.
If we had gone down the alternate path and tried to invent first, there is a very high likelihood we would have failed to meet our customers’ needs, while at the same time disrupting our core business.
Having taken the time to initially innovate on our core framework, versus disrupting our framework, has positioned us to quickly accelerate the value proposition to our customers (both internal and external). It was the right answer for us here at KAR. It just may be the right decision for your team as well.
Originally published in CIO Review.