So innovation is a big buzzword these days. (Do people still say ‘buzzword’? Is buzzword still a buzzword?) Approximately half of the people I did my TED talk with spoke more or less explicitly about the importance of innovation. By comparison, nobody talked about inventing anything new. And why exactly would that be? Isn’t invention important? After all, without inventions we would still be living in caves, so why wouldn’t anyone talk about the need for pure creation?
The answer, I think, is actually pretty simple – innovation is easier. Sometimes I think innovation is presented as the province of the extraordinary, people who see things others can’t. But that more accurately describes invention than it does innovation. The invention of something totally new, like steam power or the theory of relativity, requires somebody to build or describe something that most of us can’t even see until it exists. Innovation, on the other hand, merely requires the creative use of things almost all of us can see.
That isn’t to say that innovation is easy, but it does mean that it’s a lot easier than we often think. Wheeled luggage revolutionized the way we travel, but it wasn’t a complete revolution. Wheels already existed, and luggage, and retractable handles. None of those things needed to be invented, and so theoretically anyone could have stared at them and decided to put them all into the same device. The same is true with airplanes; we already had motors, and wheels, and flags and banners and windwill arms and other things that could catch and ride on the wind. Making a working airplane was a monumental feat of engineering, but it wasn’t beyond the reach of all but a chosen few. The Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics, after all, and there were plenty of others just like them who could have built an airplane if they’d been so inclined.
Which means when you really come down to it, most of what we call ‘inventions’ are actually innovations. Uber and Airbnb and every website like them is simply taking the same concept – crowdsourcing – and applying it to different industries. There are approximately a million streaming radio services now, and they’re all monkeying around with the same basic format. You can get four thousand types of insurance these days, but every one of them is a variation on the single theme of paying money to protect against some potential catastrophe. Our world is vastly different from the world of 20 or 50 or 500 years ago, and usually we attribute those differences to a wave of new inventions. But in reality, most of what we’ve accomplished is simply staring at what’s around us and seeing how we can put those things to new or more interesting uses.
So if you’re trying to figure out how to jumpstart a new business or revitalize your existing one, take heart. The pieces of your success are almost certainly already there. You just need to figure out how to put them all together. I’m not saying that will necessarily be easy – but it’s a lot easier than having to come up with something completely new.