July 6

Disruptive or Incremental Innovation?

Boom or bust, profit or loss, all or nothing; it sometimes seems as though we live in a very clear-cut world in which the extremes take precedence over the middle ground. But real life isn’t like that, it’s made up of compromises and consultations, of workarounds and best fits. So why should business life be any different?

Perhaps it’s something to do with a misguided view of the concept of visible leadership; the idea that if a leader is going to instigate change, then that change had better be radical or people may wonder what they had been doing. Or perhaps it is something to do with the idea that if we are going to change, we might as well make that change as complete as possible; somewhat akin to deciding to re-decorate a room and painting every wall rather than just repainting the door.

Certainly there are organisations which do need a complete shakeup but there are also times when adopting the extremes is not in the long-term best interests of the organisation. It’s a concept which we frequently come across when helping CEOs and senior teams to create innovative organisations. Defining the innovation mix is one of the most important tasks for innovation leaders. On the one hand, sticking to purely incremental innovation will never deliver the game-changing synergies, which are characteristic of the world’s most innovative organisations. On the other hand, adopting a purely disruptive innovation model may result in the business driving forward but it will never have time to create the support structures which underpin change.

“while I might class a new product as incremental, others might call it a massive breakthrough”

Interestingly, in an article entitled ‘do you really want disruptive innovation’ in May this year Anthony Ferrier commented about the way in which perception plays a huge part in defining the innovation mix. His observation that “while I might class a new product as incremental, others might call it a massive breakthrough” perfectly sums up the challenge which faces innovation leaders. Whilst every organisation will have their own unique innovation mix, many will find that for them the middle path is the optimum way; delivering some incremental innovation and some disruptive, or radical, innovation around a central core of what we call ‘differentiated’ innovation.

Differentiated Innovation: Adapting and improving existing solutions or creating new ‘versions’ of them so they change behaviour enough to drive ‘new to the company’ business.

The important thing is to create a stepping-stone between incremental innovation and radical innovation activity because the biggest shift of the needle comes from activity in the middle!


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