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Invention vs. Innovation

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

It is important to be clear about the difference between invention and innovation. Invention is a new idea. Innovation is the commercial application and successful exploitation of the idea.

Let me run an idea by you which I think helps to frame this question from Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History S1/E6 It has to do with soccer; actually, the difference between soccer and basketball. This idea comes from two economists named David Sally and Chris Anderson who wrote a really great book a couple years ago about soccer called The Numbers Game. One of the questions they asked was what matters more if you want to build a great soccer team, how good your best player is or how good your worst player is? And their answer was, “In soccer, what matters is how good your worst player is.” - What matters in basketball is not how good your fifth player is, it’s how good your superstar is. It’s a strong link game. Think about Lionel Messi, maybe the greatest soccer player of his generation, versus Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player his generation. - Nation building is a weak link sport!

“It is important to be clear about the difference between invention and innovation. Invention is a new idea. Innovation is the commercial application and successful exploitation of the idea.”

Final thought from the same episode: Here’s another example. One of the great puzzles of the industrial revolution is why it began in England. Why not France or Germany? One theory is that Britain was lucky enough to have more geniuses than anyone else, like James Watt who invents the steam engine. But there’s an economist named Joel Mokyr who makes a really compelling argument that England’s advantage is that it had way more craftsman and skilled engineers and experienced and mechanically minded backyard tinkerers than anyone else. Those were the people who are able to take those inventions and perfect them and make them useful. Mokyr is saying that the industrial revolution was a weak link phenomenon, not a strong link phenomenon. And because Britain had more craftsman than France or Germany, that gave Britain a huge advantage. - we are indeed looking in the wrong direction!



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