Why it is important to understand the four types of innovation

There are four main, overarching types of innovation, with a wealth of theory supporting each. Are you aware of all of them?


There are four main overarching types of innovation and a wealth of theory to support each. You may be familiar with most of the approaches already and perhaps even have a natural inclination towards one or the other. However, it can still be useful take a step back and ensure that at each step of your project, your strategy realistically matches your goals, ethos and workflow.

1. Incremental innovation: Develop your existing product

Incremental innovation, sometimes called ‘sustaining innovation’ or ‘continuous improvement’, strengthens what you already have by steadily building on your existing tools, markets and processes. From additional services or features to your product, to refining your user experience, incremental innovation is all about maximizing value and removing blockages, all without reinventing the wheel.

The appealing thing about this form of innovation is that it can be easily built into your existing workflow and you can even introduce it "incrementally". When pursuing incremental innovation, it’s important to ensure that you’re inviting ideas and feedback from your entire team, as well as actioning that feedback in small, manageable ways.

You may not feel the need to shout about incremental innovation within your business, but you should. This type of slow, steady and meaningful innovation makes your employees feel appreciated and rewarded for sharing their best ideas, day after day.

2. Disruptive innovation: Introduce a new product

Disruptive innovation is often referred to as the ‘stealth innovation’ as it refers to the introduction of a new technology, process or idea to your existing market. While this new technology may initially be less effective or more expensive than its predecessor, testing it on a small scale within your market allows you to iterate it until you’re able to overtake the competition.

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If you’re the ones leading this disruption, or if it’s happening across your industry or sector as a whole, you must ensure that your business model evolves alongside these rapid new changes. Quite often, the first mover with any disruptive technology falls out of the race because they fail to secure the infrastructure needed to execute a large-scale rollout when the time is right.

Successful management of disruptive innovation relies on agile movement, so it’s worth making sure that feedback channels are clear across your entire organization. You never know who’s going to identify something new and exciting that completely changes the game.

3. Architectural innovation: Enter a new market

Architectural innovation involves taking the components or infrastructure from one sector and introducing them to a completely new market. For instance, technology developed by the military is often later used in medical research, or adjusted further for mass consumer use.

This type of innovation, which is often an exercise in reorientation or repackaging rather than total reinvention, can only be successful when you fully understand the needs of your new market. Here, positioning and education are key.

You’ll need to closely monitor the communications around your product or service, and be able to rapidly adjust if you feel the needs of your market are not being addressed. Make sure you listen closely to the opinions of team members who have the most contact with your customers, as they are often the first to realize when the conversation lacks clarity.

4. Radical innovation: Create a new market

This is the big one, and what we typically think of when we hear the word ‘innovation’. Radical innovation involves carving out a market sector that didn’t previously exist, usually through the introduction of a completely new technology. It’s bold, exciting and full of risk.

However, even if your business is pursuing radical innovation, with the right systems in place you don’t have to feel like you’re entering entirely unchartered waters. In fact, you can draw powerful lessons from incremental, disruptive and architectural innovation by:

  • Viewing change as a process, fuelled by internal and external feedback
  • Iterating on your new product or service on a small scale (such as running a pilot)
  • Defining the parameters of your new market through consumer research

Whatever type of innovation strategy you choose to pursue, innovation management software can help you gather the internal insights you need to make every step a success.

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