Want innovation? Forget invention, learn to execute

Richard W. DeVaul
5 min readApr 14, 2021
Circus performers executing their art, circa 1890, Library of Congress

When I ask what innovation is, I often hear the term “invention.” Sometimes I hear “design.” Almost never do I hear “execution.” And yet, without execution there is no product, no service, no impact. Overvaluing invention and undervaluing execution leads to poor resource allocation and underperformance in most innovation-focused organizations.

innovation is not driven by invention

The primacy of invention to successful innovation is a myth, as I’ve explored elsewhere in my writing. That is not because invention is unimportant — it is a critical step. But actual invention precedes high-impact innovation by years or decades, if not centuries. Rarely are the inventor and the successful innovator the same. That is because good ideas by themselves do little.

High-impact innovation comes from putting the pieces together well — design — and delivering a great product — execution. Where does invention come in? It’s the raw material, but like so many raw materials it’s often better to source it from elsewhere rather than digging it up yourself. Don’t believe me? Tablet computers existed for decades before the iPad, electric cars were 100 years old before the first Tesla Roadster. The list goes on.

I don’t dismiss the importance of invention — after all, I’m an inventor with 70 issued US patents. I’ve also led product teams and built billions of dollars of enterprise value. And I can tell you without hesitation that if you want to change the world tomorrow, stop working on invention, focus instead on design and execution.

design, execution, and innovation

Great design is essential to successful innovation. Without an innovative design, you are making another incremental product. Great design doesn’t just happen, however. It’s the result of a process, a discipline. Learning and applying the discipline of design thinking or other iterative, multi-disciplinary design methodology is critical to successful innovative product development.

One of the essential features of a good design process is bringing together not just the considerations of the product’s users, but also the considerations of the full product lifecycle, including the execution…

Richard W. DeVaul

Founder, mad scientist, moonshot launcher. Writes on innovation, entrepreneurship, and social/queer issues. ex-CTO of Google X. @rdevaul on twitter