Don’t confuse invention, improvement and innovation

Guest blog by Karim Wassef, general manager — Embedded Systems, GE Critical Power business

How often have you read a corporate website or mission statement that says something like, “Our inventions create innovative solutions that improve lives.” My guess is you’ve never heard that from a successful company. Knowing the difference between “invention,” “improvement” and “innovation” is the critical distinction between good companies that succeed in their markets and great companies that create new markets.

“Invention” is the art of creating something new. “Improvement” advances a concept, technology or product. “Innovation” invokes fundamental change — in a product category, a market, or the way that people conduct business or live their lives. Innovation is not typically something new, but rather an intersection of ideas and technologies that coalesce in the right way, at the right time, in ways that affect fundamental change.

Take the smart phone. IBM and Bell South literally invented the first smart phone, a combination phone and touch-screen information device called Simon, in 1994. However, even the collaboration of a technology powerhouse and a leading telecommunications carrier could not convert this groundbreaking invention into a new market category. Cell phones still ruled for almost two decades. When Palm introduced the first personal digital assistance (PDA), the Pilot, and RIM’s Blackberry changed simple paging to a must-have business tool, two major “improvements” came together to advance the wide adoption of mobile technology. Thirteen years after the introduction of Simon, Apple released the innovative iPhone, now totaling some 700 million units, creating a multi-billion-dollar hardware and application market.

There are lots of reasons for the success of the iPhone, but the core innovation was harnessing, or improving, a range of existing technologies to create new value. Fifteen years ago, we still carried pagers, used digital recorders, played music on a portable CD player, took pictures with a new digital camera and used a desktop computer or laptop to access information on something we called the World Wide Web. Today, all of the functionality these devices provide has been squeezed into a device that fits in our pocket. For better or worse, the smart phone connects people, information and ideas in ways that change how we live our lives and conduct business. It’s innovation, not just invention.

If we accept the distinction between invention, improvement and innovation, how can we apply that knowledge to affect change in our businesses? You might argue that not every company can be Apple or build market-changing technology. I would argue that you’re wrong.

Creating innovation at the intersection of other technologies is not a new concept. Guttenberg harnessed the principles of embossing coins and a wine press to create the printing press. Early mechanical calculators with programmable punch cards were based on pattern punch cards used in Jacquard weaving looms. Even the light bulb was inspired by Edison’s understanding of a vacuum pump to remove oxygen from the bulb.

Innovation, simply stated, is an opportunity to look at old problems in new ways. There’s been a lot written about the many ways to foster an environment of innovation. Let me suggest two more ways companies can create innovation.

– One, start by defining the problem, not seeking a solution;
– Two, ask the right questions.

Early developers of web search engines defined their solution as a way to “collect and deliver” online information. Ten years later, Google redefined the problem as “How do people look for and harness information?” and asked “How can we synthesize 3,000 answers into ten meaningful and insightful information resources?” That question, at the core of Google’s advanced algorithm, drove innovation that today touches almost every person and business across the earth.

In another example, let’s look at GE’s Critical Power business. Our computing and communications customers need AC-to-DC power conversion components that deliver more power in the same footprint — from a printed circuit board (PCB) all the way up to a server cabinet. It’s easy to assume that the “solution” to the problem is smaller power components.

When we listened really well to our customers, however, we redefined the problem as “giving back vital PCB real estate that designers need to increase processing capacity.” That led to asking the right questions. It’s not, “Can we make this smaller?” Instead, it’s “Can we take power supplies off the processing part of a PCB and place power components in what was unusable space?” That’s the question that drives a core design philosophy we call “Designing in the Negative Space.” this philosophy has launched a series of power conversion devices that reside on top of, underneath or alongside previously unusable PCB and server rack space.

Understanding the real problem first and asking new “what-if-instead” questions fundamentally changes how we transform conventional power design constraints — such as mechanical, thermal or feature-set challenges — into innovative power solutions.

Wiring that kind of thinking into a design process is what moves us from invention and step improvement to real innovation that garners real change.

The author: Dr. Karim Wassef, general manager of the Embedded Products business unit for GE’s Critical Power business, works with telecommunications and data center customers to provide advanced power solutions that support massive communications, network and computing capacity. As a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff with Lucent Power, he introduced multiple patents and technologies before transitioning to commercial leadership under Tyco Electronics and Lineage Power, and now GE’s Critical Power business. To learn more about GE’s Critical Power business visit

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