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What is it after all?

Is it innovation or is it invention?

Trying to get two people to agree on the definitions of either is a challenge. On top of that, I constantly hear how companies tout that both are within their culture, yet most don’t know what either is useful for or how to put them to good use. For another time, a bigger question might be, does it matter?

We use those two words much like we use the word “design” for everything from concept, product, graphics, engineering, process, architecture, and on and on. It’s a catch all word. Innovation and invention are warm and fuzzy words for companies trying to build a profile of being progressive, on top of their game, and having something to crow about. After all, innovation and or invention makes you fashionable.

After looking through many expert definitions of innovation, the one that stuck with me is from Drew Boyd, “Anything that is New, Useful, and Surprising.” Somewhat broad, simple, and similar but not interchangeable with invention, which is most often a never-before-seen solution to a problem.

Stepping into the world I am most familiar with, children, young adult, and family consumer products, gaming, and storytelling; innovation and invention are the constant go-to for new product introductions, year after year after year. It’s often said all those businesses are considered a fashion industry. There is an extensive network of worldwide toy inventors, some with incredible track records. Most companies have an internal design staff who are more than capable of creating innovative product. But I am willing to bet most great innovation and invention gets left on the table. I have seen it many times.

When there is an obvious, at least to a creative, innovative idea presented, you immediately know it can be significant. Take, for example, an idea that was presented to me many years ago from a great inventor, Phil Neal of Go Products. It was nothing more than a circuit board with wheels attached. But when you picked it up and shook it several times, revving each time louder and louder until you put it on the ground, and it took off and raced away. Was that an invention or an innovation? Nothing new about a car, but how it interacted with the child had never been done before. Proof in the sales in the millions of pieces of what would become Shake & Go over a decade said something about innovation. The good part, most internal people got it.

Then there are the innovations/inventions that are not so obvious, but actually the most promising. When an idea/concept that a creative, whether a designer or another, puts forward something deemed innovative, more often than not, one or several people freeze to the idea. Oh, no, no no they immediately announce as they shift back and forth in their seats with the all too familiar negative responses without qualifications. Most likely because the idea is unfamiliar, it pushes a boundary they haven’t examined, it’s unproven and on and on. I call it the culture of can’t verses the culture of can. Innovation by nature is high risk. Many in companies can’t react to things that haven’t already been done. That’s why research often misleads results because you can’t react properly to something which has no precedent. Unfortunately, many product development and marketing organizations miss the opportunity, leaving many a designer/inventor scratching their heads. Everyone wants excitement but as an easy get!

Now a product doesn’t always need hot-new innovation or a brand-new invention. The act of play and engagement in entertainment are generated in many ways. A product, especially innovative, can help facilitate play and engage the user in much deeper and meaningful way. So, don’t resist the unproven, but rather give it a chance and try to listen to those ideas that might make you shift in your seats a little. Innovation will be worth the time.


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