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Donna Zajonc, PCC

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Turning Inventing into Innovation
by Donna Zajonc, PCC   
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Last edited: Thursday, December 16, 2010
Posted: Thursday, December 16, 2010

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Successful leaders today must go beyond simply introducing the new idea. They must also convene conversations that hold conflicting tension thus guiding others to see the wisdom of the invention.

I am always surprised when I learn the small but very important differences between words. Take inventing and innovating---until recently I would have said these two words are interchangeable. A few weeks ago I attended a seminar by Robert Dunham and learned that every leader must understand the powerful differences between inventing and innovating.

The action of inventing is the creation of a new idea, new product or new device. Innovation is the action of implementing the change and figuring out how to help the organization or team to adopt the new idea throughout the organization. Leaders who come up with great ideas and assume those ideas will automatically be adopted by their organization will almost always be disappointed.

An August, 2005 Business Journal article stated that 95% of innovation initiatives fail to meet their goals. In short, leaders have an astounding ability to come up with new ideas but have a very poor track record when it comes to getting those ideas embedded into the organization.

Thomas Edison was both an inventor and an innovator. He invented the filament that burned bright. He also studied the power grid system and originated concepts to bring power to homes and businesses throughout the country. Edison realized that a new filament meant nothing without a new way of generating and distributing power.

As a young leader, I remember often saying to myself, "I just need to come up with a new idea that will solve this or that problem." What I did not realize at the time is that new ideas and inventions are plentiful. What is in short supply are leaders who can inspire and challenge people to integrate the new idea at all levels in the organization.

In the past, leaders told people what to do and, for the most part, people followed orders. Creating change was not an issue in a centralized, hierarchal world. But in today's world filled with a multitude of complex interests and strong-willed individuals, new ideas are not adopted just because the leader announces the change.

Innovation requires a change of habits and practices, moving away from the old and toward the new. This is the hard stuff of leadership because most of us are pretty attached to our habits and ways of thinking. Getting people to see the wisdom of the new invention can be more difficult than "thinking up" the new idea or invention in the first place.

Dunham, in his book co-authored by Peter Denning titled, The Innovator's Way: Essential Practices for Successful Innovation states that the leader's role is to shift conversations that focus on the new desire or innovation.

The velocity in which the leader can help the organization or team to move toward adopting the invention is a measurement of the leader's power and influence. Inventing the ideas without focusing on the new conversations to alter habits means the invention most likely will fail. Hence the 95% failure rate for new inventions.

Dunham outlines eight steps that are involved in the invention-innovation process. The first three steps have to do with the invention:

  1. Sensing: In this initial step we sense a disharmony with what exists. We come up with a vague new possibility but are not quite sure what the idea is yet. We know something in the current state is not working.
  2. Envisioning: In this step the vision is identified and new conversations are beginning. The inventor begins to talk out loud about the significance of the new idea.
  3. Offering: The value of the new invention is identified in this step. By offering it to others the value is highlighted. Many inventors do not go beyond this stage. If they hear negative comments about the value or difficulty in adopting the invention, they may get discouraged.

    The next five steps are about innovating and bringing the new idea into fruition:
  4.  Adopting: In this step, prospects will begin to explore the invention. Conversations begin with, "What would it take to try-out this new idea?"
  5. Sustaining: This conversation is about what commitments will be made and who is participating in the offering. There are also agreements made about integrating the invention into the current system.
  6. Executing:  This step requires someone who can follow through with commitments and executive agreements. A leader must perform and do what they say they are going to do to fully move from an invention to innovation.
  7. Leadership: This step is very challenging. Because change and new ideas always meet some resistance, the leader must be able to hold the tension and lead through breakdowns. Continuing to inspire those who might not yet see the wisdom of the invention is essential for every great leader.
  8. Embody:    In this final step, the invention is fully integrated and embodied into the psyche of the individuals and throughout the organization.

It is not likely that one individual has the skill-set needed for each step. If you are a solo act, it means that you must have the capacity to move through each of these steps alone---a daunting task indeed. The most likely possibility is to look for individuals who have these different skills and assure that your team is well balanced with both inventors and innovators.

Successful leaders today must go beyond simply introducing the new idea. They must also convene conversations that hold conflicting tension thus guiding others to see the wisdom of the invention. Focusing on turning inventing into innovating will increase the chance that creative initiatives and pioneering organizations will actually emerge.

Web Site: The Bainbridge Leadership Center

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