Innovation vs. Invention: Only one drives organizational growth

I am a big advocate of creating a culture of continuous innovation in organizations. However, I find that a lot of individuals have a difficult time with step one – discerning between innovation and invention.

Invention is the creation of new ideas for products or processes. For example, the original formula for Coca-Cola was the invention of a pharmacist by the name of John Stith Pemberton. Although he invented what has since become the world’s most popular soft drink, in my opinion, he was not the company’s greatest innovator.

Why? Because, during Permberton’s lifetime, Coca-Cola was not truly commercialized. He did recognize that his concoction was both ‘delicious and refreshing’, but he could not see the true potential for his invention. Ultimately, he sold it through a limited distribution channel primarily for medical purposes.

Not until Asa Candler purchased the company did the drink begin its journey into becoming one of the worlds most consumed products. And therein lies the essence of innovation. Innovation hinges on the commercialization of the invention, not the invention itself. It is the translation of an invention into a marketable product or service.

Asa Candler saw the potential for Coca-Cola to be more than just medicinal syrup. He envisioned Coca-Cola as a refreshing and delicious drink people could enjoy all the time and began to market it aggressively. Big on advertising, Candler distributed thousands of coupons and promoted the drink through various Coca-Cola trademarked items from calendars to clocks. It is largely because of Mr. Candler’s aggressive marketing that Coca-Cola became what it is today.

Another of the company’s true innovators was a man named Biedernharn who installed bottling machinery in the rear of his store and began to sell cases of Coca-Cola. This eventually led two businessmen to secure the rights to bottle and sell Coca-Cola throughout the U.S (History of Bottling, The Coca-Cola Company*). This bottling system is still the business model used by the Coca-Cola Company. The company sells the syrup to bottling companies who mix the syrup with carbonated water and sweeteners and sell the final product to retailers (The Coca-Cola System, Our Bottlers, The Coca-Cola Company**).

In the company’s 125 year history there have been many more innovators that have built and added to the success of that original medicinal syrup. True to the 90% Rule’s philosophy, they continuously developed new and creative ways to push the product and build the brand…the next, logical step forward. It is this type of belief in and commitment to innovation that is critical to every organization’s continued success.

Remember, to be innovative you need to have audacity – a willingness to challenge assumptions and conventions. With audacity and entrepreneurial thinking, Candler and Biedernharn (and those that followed in their footsteps) thought in unconventional ways, challenged the norm and changed the world’s perception of sweet syrup.

-Ken Tencer



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