By Evans Baiya, PhD & Ron Price

Being an inventor is a great achievement. After all, you are the one who comes up with the ideas, or a new discovery. From incandescent light bulbs to the internet of things (IoT), inventors have made untold numbers of improvements to our lives.

We have been privileged to work with many people who are truly world-class inventors; scientists, engineers, and other forms of disrupters or technical experts. Confidentiality agreements prohibit us from sharing details, but we have been awestruck by some of the advances we have watched emerge into the marketplace by people we were privileged to coach.

One thing has become very clear to us in our experience — there is a significant difference between being an inventor and being an innovator. Fundamentally, invention is birthing of the value creation concept while innovation is the development from the concept all the way to value delivery. Inventors are idea or discovery driven, innovators are value driven. Actually, there are many differences between inventors and innovators. Five of the most important differences we have noticed are:

  1. Quantity of ideas. Where the inventor quickly focuses on a specific idea envisioned, innovators focus on a broader scope with an appreciation for idea quantity over idea quality. Global research shows that it takes over 3000 ideas for one to become commercially successful. The inventor has laser focus; the innovator starts with a large funnel that needs to be filled with thousands and thousands of problem-opportunities.
  2. Questions to be answered. Inventors draw their inspiration from within; the questions they want answered are mainly around the idea itself, not necessarily it’s application or eventual value creation. Innovators draw their inspiration from the world around them. Innovators fill their idea funnel by studying, asking, and learning about other people’s problems – a series of strategic questions. As they consider these problems, they answer questions about impact significance, development obstacles, delivery systems, and channels of connecting with others. They begin answering all of these questions before they start the “inventing” process.
  3. Target Outcomes. Inventors almost always focus on new products. Innovators look much broader because their focus is solving problems that may not be solved by new products. They look for value creation that may include new services, new processes, new ways of engaging the marketplace, and whole new paradigms or mindsets that change the way we live. Innovators focus on value that may require new inventions, but many times, it takes existing ideas and creates something new that delivers the desired value.
  4. Execution Process: Innovators follow a rigorous system of six stages of value creation. Inventors follow two or, at most, three of these stages. They have an idea, then they begin experimenting, and finally, they introduce their new product to the world. One scientist told us, “We get an idea and we create a product!” Because innovators are first focused on value creation that solves the problems of others, they carefully move from identifying problems, to defining them, then developing multiple solutions as experiments, then verifying them with a group of “problem owners”, and finally deploying and scaling those innovations that will yield the greatest impact. This continuum of innovation brings a much deeper understanding of the “guts” of innovation that provides opportunities for everyone to become a highly valued innovator. With this comprehensive approach, there are often opportunities for inventions throughout the continuum.
  5. Involvement of other people. Inventors do most of their work alone. Even when part of a “team”, we have observed that the real work of inventing is normally a solitary job. The inventor is expected to deliver the product he/she discovered. Seldom do inventors deliver successful products without taking a lot of time and resources. While invention has been treated as an individual sport for many generations, on the other hand innovation is a team sport. Innovators work in teams with shared interests and values, but often very diverse talents and skills. In our work, we have discovered 61 different metrics of natural talent and learned skills that predict a person’s potential as an innovator. One innovator may excel as an idea generator while another will excel as the idea analyzer. Still another innovator will be the tireless experimenter, or the person who devotes her time to understanding how to best introduce the new innovation to the world. In the greatest innovation “labs”, there are multiple teams of innovators that focus on the stage in the innovation continuum where they bring the greatest talents and skills. In our work, we refer to this as each individual having their own “innovation fitness” to be deployed collaboratively for the benefit of the whole team. Anyone can excel in more than one stage, but no one excels in all stages, which means, as long as you know everyone’s innovation fitness and how it applies to your work, even in a small team, you may have enough talent to do great innovation.

We need inventors, and with each new generation, we will have them. The passion for learning, experimenting, and creating new products will always be present. However, today we need many more innovators than currently exist. This is because innovators are not born; they are made through carefully learning the tools and processes of value creation around purpose, pathway, and organization of people. When organizations realize the differences between inventors and innovators, value creation will grow exponentially, providing significant new levels of success for both individuals and the organizations where they work. Innovation will no longer be mistakenly seen as exclusively the work of inventors.

Baiya and Price is the co-author of the award-winning book, The Innovator’s Advantage and co-creators of the “The Innovator’s Advantage Academy (IA2)”, a detailed step-by-step innovation training for innovators and business leaders. To connect with them, visit, or email him at [email protected]