January 30 by Zack Alspaugh

Innovation. It’s a term thrown around everywhere, from board rooms to TED Talks to Forbes articles. As the Google Ngram graph below illustrates, it’s a growing facet of our everyday conversation, and more importantly a growing aspect of many companies’ strategy.

Unfortunately, most companies struggle to innovate because they can’t differentiate between invention and innovation.

Invention can be defined as the creation of a product or introduction of a process for the first time. Often people are disillusioned with the idea that invention has to be the next big thing. Ask them for an example and they’ll parrot the clichés – Edison and the Lightbulb, the wheel, Graham Bell and the phone.



Do you know who Jay Sorensen is? You should.

His invention is the cornerstone of an $18 billion dollar industry and instantly catapulted him from struggling realtor to millionaire entrepreneur. His work is on display both in corner cafes and the New York Museum of Modern Art, alongside van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans.” You likely use his invention everyday – the insulated coffee cup sleeve.



The reason for its rampant success is it solved a common problem. Sorensen came up with the idea after a scalding paper cup burned his fingers, causing him to drop his coffee in his lap.

That was a creative invention. Effective innovation however, doesn’t come from developing a ‘big bang’ idea. It comes from constant improvement on, or a significant contribution to an existing product, process or service.

Java jacket


A simple example is Steve Jobs, who is often seen as the ‘poster boy’ of innovation. Apple’s iPod was by no stretch of the imagination a new concept – think of tape decks, Sony Walkmen, MP3 devices. But it’s constant improvement in design, ergonomics, ease of use, and capabilities, combined with the iTunes community, helped revolutionize the way people consumed music.

Becoming an Innovative Company

InventionMeredith Schmidt, SVP of Global Revenue Operations for Salesforce (Forbes’ Most Innovative Company 4 years straight and counting) recently instilled some advice on encouraging innovation.

“Innovation is a result of developing a culture of change management that allows for adaptability, scalability, and rapid execution. I think the folks on the ground,” she explained. “They don’t want to do the same thing day in and day out. They want to see change and they want to see improvement.”


More importantly they are the ones who will recognize the opportunities to improve. You don’t need a Steve Jobs to innovate. Like in Sorensen’s case, solutions present themselves in the form of problems every day. Sometimes it is the smallest, simplest solution that makes the biggest difference. You may save one minute in a day-to-day process, but when you repeat that process thousands of times a year, it accumulates into a tremendous amount of time saved.

Open channels of communication and a willingness to change will be your incubators of innovation.

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