Innovating is not inventing

I started reading an article on ‘Breakthroughs and the the “Long Tail” of Innovation’ and it began to blur with the Long Trail school where my husband occasionally gives video lessons. So why would I blur these two things? Well for one thing the Long Trail School focuses on building a community to enable focused, hardworking, and creative students.

The founders of the school after years of teaching in traditional schools recognized that the ‘one size fits all’ approach to education doesn’t work.

We know that the ‘one size fits all’ certainly does not work for the management of breakthrough innovation. According to Long Trail founders, talented bright young students were slipping through the cracks and not being pushed to excel, often not even being noticed. This is the same problem that managers of innovation face as described in part in the article on the long tail of innovation. How do you provide a climate for creativity and make sure it gets noticed?

The long tail of innovation refers to the fact that almost all inventions are useless, a few are of moderate value and only very very few are breakthroughs. The question then becomes what or who is the source of these rare breakthroughs. It turns out lone inventors are more likely to be the source of breakthroughs so the Long Trail school is right in encouraging creative types. On the other hand lone inventors are on average less successful. Collaboration and diversity of teams help by leading to a great number of inventions and a greater chance of producing the highest valued output. Investment in science makes the process of invention less random. Once managers more fully understand the invention process, as the authors suggest, they should reconsider their reward systems. This was a big issue for our sample of companies intent on establishing breakthrough innovation programs. They know money is good but often is not a sufficient or practical reward, celebrations work up to a point but rewards have to be tied to specific skills and to a career path. Hence recognizing the different modes and aspects of the invention process must translate into providing career paths for both inventors and innovators which brings me to another point.

In ‘Breakthroughs and the “Long Tail” of Innovation’, author Lee Fleming makes the case that many managers have little understanding of the process of invention. I agree but there is also the reality that many managers have little understanding of the process of innovation and they often confuse it with the process of invention. These processes may sometimes overlap but they are fundamentally different. It is with the innovation process that noticing really happens because here is where the intersection of markets and technology must be worked out. Ensuring that something gets noticed means ensuring a market presence. A breakthrough invention can let one do something new or unique but a breakthrough innovation changes our lives and the competitive landscape and therefore makes us notice the importance of the invention.

Breakthrough Innovation depends on an implementation process aimed at reducing market, resource and organizational uncertainty as well as technical uncertainty. The types of creativity, collaboration and rewards required go beyond that required for the invention process.


  1. Having belatedly noticed this blog and expecting nothing I offer this: David Galenson, a puiblished art economist defines innovation in art as an event which when it happens changes practises for all thereafter. I wonder if this definition scales well in the new product context.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s