The Value of Incremental Innovation

Can many incremental changes beat moonshots?


In my first article in this series, I talked about the continued, and often misplaced, focus of corporate innovation leaders on developing disruptive innovation efforts. My basic argument within the article was that while 'Big I' innovation can be a valid driver of growth, few companies are in the right position or have laid the appropriate groundwork to support and develop new, groundbreaking ideas, especially in the context of the existing organizational culture.

In this article I want to talk about the value of incremental innovation and why companies should often focus on this, rather than driving as hard as they can to come up with the next breakthrough product or service. Incremental improvements aren’t always cool, but over time they can drive significant business results.

Before proceeding, I should once again outline the kind of companies that I often work with. They are not the Apple’s, Google’s or Amazon’s of the world. I tend to work with organizations that are well established, not at a point of imminent collapse, and often trying to be innovative, but struggling to execute on their ideas. No company that I have ever worked with has a shortage of ideas.

A focus on incremental innovations, and the activities that source and develop them, make sense in the following context:

  • Pipeline Management: Too often I see organizations filling an innovation pipeline with large-scale, broadly scoped, long-term innovations that leave their programs vulnerable. I say the world “vulnerable” with purpose. Innovation programs are often politically sensitive and need to be extremely conscious of the constant pressure to undermine their achievements and goals (read this article for more details). By having a balanced pipeline, there is a better chance that at least some activities will be implemented, balancing out some of the failures which you are sure to encounter.
  • Starting a program: Often leaders of new innovation programs are tempted to focus on big thinking. And why not? It is sexy, cool and fun! The reality is that new programs will face some healthy skepticism by their leadership, especially within established business units, so it is important to get some runs on the board. By quickly demonstrating success, even with smaller ideas, you are able to create an impression of momentum and build towards bigger ticket thinking.
  • Pressure on results: Innovation leaders are often told by leadership that they want “Big I” ideas, but at the same time (or soon after) there is pressure to generate immediate financial impact. In this case you just don’t have the time to develop the big ideas, so it can be a better position to generate some incremental improvements. This can take the immediate pressure off and allow you to demonstrate a rate of success in order to build some political capital to focus on bigger ideas.
  • Generating Stakeholder buy-in: If you are struggling to secure and maintain stakeholder buy-in, focusing on incremental improvements can demonstrate your ability to drive change, without destroying their organization (often their concern) or needlessly redirecting resources. By building success, aligned with their needs (an important point to understand), you can secure their buy-in and support over time.
  • Launching innovation challenges: There is no shortage of innovation platform vendors in the marketplace, and many of them will encourage you to run challenges or campaigns that focus on big, bold visions of the future. This is especially true when they are launching their product into your organization, as they want substantial engagement metrics to justify investment in their platform. In my experience, and this may be controversial, launching with these “Big I” crowdsourced challenges early will encourage a lot of employee excitement. However if you don’t have an established model of idea execution, that excitement will dissipate (at best) or turn negative when the participants realize that their ideas haven’t been built. By focusing on smaller areas of improvement, especially when launching these efforts, you can build community trust and demonstrate real traction with the winning ideas.
  • Cultural pushback: Many mature and regulated organizations often have cultures that pushback on new thinking, in any form. Within this environment, it is important to assess how much you can enhance the culture, in terms of new ideas development. Focusing on smaller improvements can be a way to limit potential pushback, and give you a chance to demonstrate that something can be built effectively within that culture. A goal should absolutely be to change that culture over time.

In conclusion, I am not saying that innovation program leaders should focus on incremental innovation at all times. What I am saying, is that just because an idea is small, or a program is in place to generate responses to more modest issues, it shouldn’t be discarded. By considering the broader context of the organization’s culture, and also the ecosystem of innovative activity within an organization, incremental improvements should make some level of sense. These smaller ideas aren’t going to get you on the cover of Time magazine, but they may help your retain you job and drive real, cumulative business impact over time.

This article was originally published in Innovation Management.


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