Innovation: Idea versus Execution

When it comes to understanding innovation, it’s easy to fixate on the idea, and neglect the execution. It’s why for example when Apple announced that their new iPhone 6 devices had NFC chips to facilitate their Apple Pay offering they were criticised for not being innovative, and instead just copying something many Android devices have had for years. “That’s not innovation!”, the critics cry.

And when it comes to the idea, the criticism is valid, but when it comes to the execution, well, let’s see what happens. Because the key here will be whether Apple can take the idea, and actually execute it well. As opposed to Android (and specifically Google Wallet) which hasn’t had much traction to date.

It’s about taking the idea, and actually making it happen. That’s usually the really, really difficult part. In many ways, coming up with the idea is the easy part.

And as a further note, being the first to market doesn’t necessarily mean you came up with the idea first. It just means you marketed it first. The real objective is to be the first to market success.

Let’s quickly review what innovation actually is. From Wikipedia (emphasis mine):

Innovation is a new idea, device or process. Innovation can be viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, inarticulated needs, or existing market needs. This is accomplished through more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas that are readily available to markets, governments and society. The term innovation can be defined as something original and, as a consequence, new, that “breaks into” the market or society.[3]
While a novel device is often described as an innovation, in economics, management science, and other fields of practice and analysis innovation is generally considered to be a process that brings together various novel ideas in a way that they have an impact on society.
Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself. Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different rather than doing the same thing better.

The above quote from Wikipedia isn’t ideal (at times I think it actually contradicts itself slighty (eg the last paragraph), but the overall gist is there: Innovation is different to Invention.

And this is what makes the Apple announcements interesting. Have they invented anything new? Not much. If anything. But then again, have they ever really invented something new? MP3 players, smartphones, computers, and perhaps even tablet like devices had been invented long before Apple made their versions. As had technologies for touch input, gyroscopes, GPS, etc. But the difference is that Apple executed unlike most other suppliers. Sure design is a part of this execution, but it’s not everything. In many ways they have been highly innovative in the ways they’ve brought products to market — even down to the supply chain advancements they’ve put in place.

And thus, when I see ads like this, I do see the funny side, but I also think there’s more to it:

Limiting innovation to be just the listing of ideas or components is missing the larger point.

Let’s consider a few of the announcement topics, starting with Apple Pay (ie NFC payments).

Apple Pay

Has Apple been innovative with Apple Pay? It’s too early to say. If their offering does take off and radically change the way a sizeable portion of the consumer base pays for things, then yes, it has been highly innovative. But if it stumbles and fails, then they’ll instead just be a company that copied an idea but didn’t provide enough improvement to the process to be innovative. Notice that the use of ‘impact on society’ in the Wikipedia definition above — it’s key to the discussion.

Apple Watch

And it works both ways in terms of critics as well. For example, many of the reviews of the Apple Watch described the use of the crown as the input device as innovative. But from an idea perspective it’s hardly new — that’s what watches have used as their UI for centuries :-). No, the innovation is whether Apple has come up with a way that significantly improved the use and interaction of wearables. If consumers embrace it (ie unlike just about all other wearables to date), then it’s likely an innovation. If it sinks and dies then it’s not.

What about the common sound bites Steve Jobs fans throw around about Tim Cook. Apple hasn’t done anything innovative since Jobs died, etc, etc[1]. Based on the above, I suspect they are actually just saying: Apple hasn’t released an obviously new idea since Jobs died.

Should Apple be criticised for copying ideas from other suppliers. Yes, probably. It seems like a fair criticism (although not in the same shameless way that say Xiaomi has copied Apple).

But should Apple be criticised for not being innovative. I suspect not. But it’s too early to tell.


It’s risky to raise the topic of patents — it’s so complex and impassioned it can detract from the overall discussion. But I will mention it here briefly, because it’s easy to see why the focus on ideas versus execution is so prevalent — just take a look at the whole patent process: they are idea focussed.

Patents exist in order to protect an invention (idea or process), but they don’t extend (much) to overall execution. The role of a patent is to protect the patent holder so that they can execute on (sometimes referred to as commercially exploit) the invention. And in many ways that’s a good thing. It’s designed to protect. But inventions are just ideas, and as such patents can also be a negative.

Patent the idea of a payment process and it’s yours for $50K-100K in legal fees (assuming you are first). But spend millions working on all the finer details of partnerships and in-store relationships, and you’re not quite as covered.

Novel ideas != Innovation

Yes, innovation can include new ideas, but it’s only part of the story.

Novel ideas aren’t automatically innovation. Executing well on a novel idea is.


[1] I’m not immune from this

Originally published at on September 16, 2014.

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