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Innovation and invention: there’s a difference, and it matters

Updated: Dec 17, 2021

I am often connecting and collaborating with people working in innovation spaces across public, non-profit, and private sectors. Each person that I meet and work with employs a slightly different innovation methodology, but there is one constant: each has a framework to move problems and projects through.

I have been guilty of conflating the terms innovation (a process) and invention (the creation of something) in my work. The outcome? Putting “the cart before the horse”. Why does the distinction matter?

Leading a process with a suggested invention before seeking to understand the problem runs a host of risks, including the creation of a solution to a problem that may not exist (or at least not how you think it does) and a product that others are not invested in.

The motivation to invent is clear: we want to show that we are producing something. Fortunately, innovation processes have the same desired outcome, but arrive at the inventing stage by first drawing out the wisdom of those that are experiencing a problem.

Innovation is a process that begins with understanding

I am a certified facilitator of the Basadur Simplexity process and have used it with groups to define problems, investigate facts and ideas, plan for action, and execute solutions.

I begin by administering an individual Basadur Profile, which helps people reflect on their preferred learning style and whether they like to explore new ideas or make decisions. The group then delves into their team profile and considers the implications of their “innovation mix”.

The Simplexity model integrates individual and team profiles into an eight-stage process that takes a group from problem finding to implementation. The Basadur suite values understanding, co-construction, and the creation and implementation of solutionsall of which are critical in the innovation process.

Invention occurs during stage 4 of the innovation process

Paula Kwan worked with the City of Toronto as the Founding Director of the Civic Innovation Office, and shared the BC Service Design Model with me given her success using it.

The Service Design Model provides a clear roadmap for people engaged in innovation work. I appreciate the model’s emphasis on working through alignment issues before engaging in discovery work. I have experienced firsthand how challenging an innovation process can be if alignment is not first established.

The model also provides a helpful visual to understand that invention happens at the prototyping and testing stage, occurring after alignment, discovery, and opportunity identification work. I credit Kevin Reid-Morris for helping me think through this difference (I will write more about Kevin in the next post). This model has proven valuable because of how it informs intentional actions that lead to innovation.

Applying lessons learned in the MIC

Our work on attainable housing is a good example of how success can be realized when we are thoughtful about process. Alignment activities occurred in Saugeen Shores through the striking of an Attainable Housing Task Force.

Discovery work happened in two phases; community consultation by the Task Force, and through applied research in partnership with the University of Waterloo’s School of Planning. Students presented significant findings through comprehensive environmental scans and moved us into the opportunity phase of the model. Suggested short term, medium term, and long-term strategies were provided to Saugeen Shores that enable council and staff to have an immediate impact on housing supply and cost.

Over the last week, I have been working alongside elected officials and staff from Saugeen Shores and Bruce County to develop an implementation plan for attainable and affordable housing in the region. The early prototyping and testing of solutions is what we are focused on alongside the development of a roadmap for longer term solutions.

This process is a clear demonstration that innovation is a cycle that, when informed, can yield inventions that positively disrupt our current state.

Written by Dave Shorey, former Innovation Officer at the Municipal Innovation Council.


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