The Difference Between Invention And Innovation

The following is an excerpt from StandOut: The Groundbreaking New Strengths Assessment From the Leader of the Strengths Revolution by Marcus Buckingham (reprinted with permission of ThomasNelson, Inc.). For more information please visit

A few years ago in a study of top-performing managers for Best Buy, I had the chance to interview Ralph Gonzalez. Ralph had successfully transformed one of Best Buy’s lowest-performing stores into a repeat award winner. On virtually every metric, from revenues to profitability to employee engagement to “shrink,” he had taken his team from the bottom 10 per cent to the top. What had he done, I asked him, to effect such a dramatic transformation?

He told me that he had played on his likeness to a young Fidel Castro, that he had called his store “La Revolucion,” that he had posted a “Declaracion de Revolucion” in the break room, that he had made the supervisors wear army fatigues, and then, as I was scribbling all this down, he told me about the whistle.

It was a brilliant innovation. Since initially his store was at the bottom of every district performance table, he wanted to give his people a way to celebrate that excellence was indeed happening in his store, and that it was happening all the time. So he gave everyone a whistle and told them to blow the whistle whenever they saw anyone do anything good. It didn’t matter if the person they saw was their superior or was working over in another department; if they saw somebody go above and beyond, they were to blow the whistle

“Didn’t it make the store incredibly loud?” I asked.

“Sure,” he replied, with a glinty Castro grin. “But it energized the store. It energized me. Heck, it even energized the customers. They loved it.”

StandOut Dust Jacket

I was so taken with this innovation I wrote about it in Now, Discover Your Strengths. What I didn’t describe is what happened next. Having been shared at a number of company gatherings, the “whistle story” started to take on a life of its own. All of a sudden it began cropping up in different districts and regions around the country. “Whistles for everyone!” There was even talk of devising a system to properly implement the whistle inside a store. Managers would have green whistles, supervisors white, and frontline blue-shirts regular silver whistles. Here are the twelve conditions when whistles can be blown—and here are the 20 conditions when the whistle must not be blown, no exceptions. What had begun as a vibrant expression of a particular person’s personality was fast mutating into a “Standard Operating Procedure.

Fortunately, some wise Best Buy executives, realising that this innovation was almost entirely dependent on the presence of Ralph himself, stepped in and killed the mutation before it could spread.

Ralph’s whistle reveals both the problem and the power of innovation: namely that innovation is a practice, not an idea. Invention is an idea, a novel idea, and, like all ideas, a novel idea is easily transferable from person to person—introduce one person to the concept of personal liberty, he tells another, she passes it on to a third, and, like a benign infection, pretty soon the whole country is swept up in the mission to secure personal liberty for all.

Innovation is “novelty that can be applied.” This means that there is a person involved, someone actually doing the doing, a Ralph. An innovation is transferable only if the person you are delivering the innovation to has the same strengths as the person who created it in the first place. What is effective and authentic in the hands of one person looks forced, fake, and foolish in the hands of another.

We see this most glaringly on the world stage. The equivalent of the “whistle” for U.S. presidents is the military photo-shoot. If a president or a presidential candidate can secure an appearance with the military, the visual image reads as powerful and authoritative. But, of course, this “best practice” depends heavily on who the practitioner is. Have President George W. Bush land on an aircraft carrier and emerge in full flight gear, and he looks authentically presidential (despite the subsequent overreach of the “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him). Have Michael Dukakis poke his head out of the turret of a tank and he looks, well, silly.