Innovation vs Invention: The Importance of Soft Skills

We talk frequently about innovation. Many people talk about it, but their definitions aren’t consistent. Moreover, most people don’t fully appreciate what it takes to be successful at invention but especially innovation. 

To start this discussion, I’d like to pose a question: what is the difference between innovation and invention? 

Often people use these two terms interchangeably. When I asked my Twitter followers, I found that most people referring to something new, but different degrees of “newness.” Yet the reality is that innovation and invention refer to two fundamentally distinct concepts. Understanding that difference is crucial to being successful at innovation. 

I myself never really gave the two terms much thought. That is, until my experience with creating Storage vMotion. At the time, I was the technical lead for vMotion. Internally at VMware, we had talked about doing something like Storage vMotion, so I decided to talk to customers at VMworld ’06 about it to see if they thought it was a good idea. And they were resoundingly enthusiastic about it! Once I got back to the office; I went to work.  

I thought the best way for me to get Storage vMotion built and out the door quickly was to do it myself and find a few folks from our QA group to give it a thorough testing.  I was naïve but I didn’t want to deal with all the red tape that is usually involved in getting a new feature or capability into a release. To me, it was too much overhead and wasted time.   

Just let me at the code! 

At first, I took the project quite far.  But eventually I needed more QA work than the team was willing to unofficially sign up for, so I had to file an “engineering change request” (ECR) to get this new functionality into the release. Of course, it was immediately rejected for all the usual reasons – lack of resources, not high enough priority, etc.  Being hardheaded, I just kept trying again and again, each time rejected. Eventually I found a PM who understood, and he convinced our vice president PM of vSphere to remove a different feature from the release to free up resources to work on Storage vMotion. 

Things started moving very quickly. It was a team effort, with help from PM, QA, docs, support, marketing, and sales.  In order to get Storage vMotion ready for release, we needed to ensure that all the different functions at VMware had the appropriate info and could properly market, sell, and support the technology.  Then, about eighteen months after we had our initial discussions about it, the first release of Storage vMotion was released in ESX 3.5. 

I would argue the answer is: nowhere

It’s not because Storage vMotion isn’t innovative. In fact, just the opposite is true. Storage vMotion turned a traditional SAN migration – which typically took months of planning and work, dozens of people, and potentially millions of dollars of cost – into a drag-and-drop that was fully automatable. That’s innovative – if I do say so myself. 

No, it’s not because Storage vMotion wasn’t innovative. It’s because we aren’t looking at a long enough timeline. If we extend the timeline, we see another critical factor in innovation – customer adoption: 

But it’s not just customers adopting it, it’s also about customers getting value out of it. And that’s, in the end, what innovation really is about: impact. 

Invention is all about something new.  A new idea or thing or a new use for an existing thing.  Innovation isn’t really about newness at all – it’s about change and impact. 

As a concrete example, if I had written the Storage vMotion code and somehow “snuck it” into the release as my young self was originally thinking, no customers would have ever known about it, used it, or gotten value out of it. It wouldn’t have been in any of our marketing materials, sales folks wouldn’t have been educating their customers about it, nobody in support would be able to help customers if they somehow stumbled across it and tried to use it. So, while I might have invented Storage vMotion in that case, it wouldn’t have been innovative since there wouldn’t have been any end user impact. It took the whole of VMware working together to create the right conditions for innovation and impact to flourish with customers. 

Why is this important? 

I think it’s critically important that we as technologists understand this distinction. Invention is generally a very technical exercise.  It’s about solving sometimes very hard technical problems to arrive at an elegant solution. It’s about thinking about the problem differently to come up with a novel approach. 

Innovation, on the other hand, typically involves many non-technical aspects. Consider the challenge faced in getting Storage vMotion accepted into the release. There I had to convince the team that my idea was more valuable than something else we were doing. In the end, I had to sell my idea internally. This was something I had not expected at all. I thought that Storage vMotion was a great idea, but of course that’s not always the way it works. 

This experience left me with three powerful takeaways that drive my thinking (not to say I’m great at these; I continually struggle with all of them!): 

  1. Your great idea is not immediately great to anyone but you. It’s your responsibility to convince others.
  2. You’re going to have to talk about your idea a lot. Socialize your idea broadly to everyone that will listen (this is essentially what I did with Storage vMotion). Listen to feedback and adjust as necessary. 
  3. You must identify stakeholders and convince them. Stakeholders make the decision, thus their opinion matters most. The more people that advocate for your idea, the better your chances. Remember, there are many ideas competing for limited resources 

In the end, probably the biggest takeaway with Storage vMotion was this: 

The process of getting an idea accepted can be as hard as coming up with the technical solutions in the idea. 

Again, I didn’t expect this. I didn’t think as a technologist that this was a problem I needed to be thinking about or solving. In almost every organization, enabling innovation requires overcoming these non-technical challenges. And they can be difficult to overcome, but it behooves us technologists to add some tools to our toolbox to solve these problems. 

At VMware, I helped create an event called Pitch-a-thon, which is like a hack-a-thon except it’s solely focused on the pitch that typically happens at the very end of a hack-a-thon after one or many nights of little sleep and without much advanced thought or preparation. Pitch-a-thon provides participants training in things like storytelling, the elements of an effective pitch, and how to distill a complex idea down to something that can be shared in a few minutes (it’s not easy!). 

There are many classes, workshops, and forums to work on public speaking, presentations, selling, and more. I strongly recommend all technologists to take advantage of these resources.  Yes, I know it’s outside most of our comfort zones, but the benefits are huge. Ultimately, we work within organizations of people, and to drive large-scale change and innovation, we must be able to convince them that our ideas are good ones. 

So, step outside your comfort zone and drive more innovation