We IBM employees are encouraged, indeed incented, to be innovative and to invent. This is particularly poignant for people like myself working on the leading edge of the latest technologies. I work in IBM emerging technologies which is all about taking the latest available technology to our customers. We do this in a number of different ways but that's a blog post in itself. Innovation is often confused for or used interchangeably with invention but they are different, invention for IBM means patents, patenting and the patent process. That is, if I come up with something inventive I'm very much encouraged to protect that idea using patents and there are processes and help available to allow me to do that.
This comic strip really sums up what can often happen when you investigate protecting one of your ideas with a patent. It struck me recently while out to dinner with friends that there's nothing wrong with failing to invent as the cartoon above says Leibniz did. It's the innovation that's important here and unlucky for Leibniz that he wasn't seen to be inventing. It can be quite difficult to think of something sufficiently new that it is patent-worthy and this often happens to me and those I work with while trying to protect our own ideas.
The example I was drawing upon on this occasion was an idea I was discussing at work with some colleagues about a certain usage of your mobile phone [I'm being intentionally vague here]. After thinking it all through we came to the realisation that while the idea was good and the solution innovative, all the technology was already known available and assembled in the way we were proposing, but used somewhere completely different.
So, failing to invent is no bad thing. We tried and on this particular occasion decided we could innovate but not invent. Next time things could be the other way around but according to these definitions we shouldn't be afraid to innovate at the price of invention anyway.