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Inventors are not innovators

By Emilio De Lia, Instructor, Management & Global Business.

Was Steve Jobs an inventor? No! says Lev Grossman in a recent article in Time magazine. Inventors are the people who come up with the bright idea. While Jobs took other peoples bright ideas and made them better and better until they could become “irresistible retail commodities.” In his zeal to reestablish the value of inventors, Grossman felt the need to nay say the irreplaceable partner of the inventor, the innovator. Grossman is right: an invention is nothing and the inventor is nobody unless their underlying genius in turned into something truly useful and desired by people.  Innovation is defined as taking bright ideas and turning them into commercial realities.  If the inventor does both he is forever famous. Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were true innovators who took their inventions and turned them into large successful world changing enterprises. A distinguishing feature of their firms was they were organized engines of innovation. Similar to Jobs, a valuable aspect of their achievement was less visible but more noteworthy. It wasn’t the stream of bright ideas that were turned into breakthroughs products and technologies. It was their ability to create a system and to implement management practices wherein people in their employ could copiously invent bright ideas and these ideas could be turned to smashing successes providing people new ways of living, working and playing.


Professor De Lia is the Executive Director of the Network for Innovation Expertise Development (NIED) at Rutgers Business School. The mission of the Network for Innovation Expertise Development (NIED, pronounced "need") is to help businesses and other organizations become expert at product and service innovation.  NIED’s sole focus is on the management capabilities needed to generate streams of new products and services over time within and across businesses.

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