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Innovation’s Best Kept Secret

Innovations Best Kept Secret

Those of you who frequent this blog know that I’m not a huge fan of either/or propositions. In most, if not all cases, decisions that are made on this basis simply constitute a lack of depth and understanding. This particularly holds true as it applies to the topic of  innovation methodology. Most innovators view innovation from one of two perspectives: those who believe disruptive innovation is superior to incremental innovation, and those who take the opposite side of the argument.  In today’s post I’ll share innovations best kept secret – a different argument altogether.

I want to begin by making the argument for incremental innovation.  It is faster, easier and cheaper to refine something than it is to create it. Let’s face it, not all oceans are blue. Even if you find a blue ocean to sail in, there is a lack of certainty as to whether you’ll navigate it successfully, and even if you do, as to how long you’ll remain the only ship in the ocean. I think most rational people have concluded it is much more profitable to disintermediate a market than it is to build one from scratch.

The main reason attempts at disruptive innovation fail more often, and don’t happen with more frequency and velocity is that human nature is to make things harder than needed by looking in the wrong places for disruptive opportunities. The real trick, the secret sauce if you will, is to focus on incremental innovation that becomes disruptive. Don’t think incremental vs. disruptive – think incremental and disruptive. This is the option that allows innovators to have their cake and eat it too. This is what levels the field by bringing disruptive opportunities in reach of companies that don’t have the time or resources to create new markets.

Let me be as clear as I can – disruptive innovation isn’t limited to a sole focus on creation of something new. Disruption can occur by disintermediating, refining, re-engineering or optimizing a product/service, role/function/practice, category, market, sector, or industry. The most successful companies combine disruptive thinking with incremental approaches in order to manage risk, gain time to market advantages, add value to core initiatives, and to leverage built-in efficiencies and economies of scale.

The problem with most incremental approaches to innovation is that companies don’t think big enough. Most incremental approaches more closely resemble process engineering/automation efforts with a focus on cost reduction through gaining efficiency, not on revenue creation by causing disruption. Removing self-imposed restrictions on thinking will result in opening up more opportunities to innovate around.

The good news is this: there’s an easy fix to this antiquated way of thinking which is currently crippling the innovation efforts of many companies, and it’s found by adhering to the following 6 step process:

  1. Define: The first thing that needs to happen is to define what constitutes disruption. Set a standard and then stick to it. I’m not suggesting that any initiative not meeting the definition by halted, but I am suggesting that you don’t fool yourself and label something as disruptive when it is clearly not.
  2. Identify: Now that you’ve defined what types of projects you’re looking for, aggressively begin pursuing projects that meet the standards.
  3. Assess: Once a potential project has been identified, put it under intense scrutiny and understand what you’re dealing with before you pull the trigger. Based upon the standards that were set in the definition phase create a scoring/ranking system based on key metrics and prioritize initiatives accordingly.
  4. Plan: Be strategic. Great outcomes rarely occur when initiatives are under-resourced and/or poorly led. Deploy your best resources against your greatest opportunities. Make sure you set projects up for success rather than failure.
  5. Implement: Get tactical. The best strategies will end-up facing certain failure unless planning transitions into practice. Without prudent, decisive, consistent and productive forward progress, plans aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. Planning without implementation is an exercise in frivolity.
  6. Monitor: Everything in business, including the best laid plans, are subject to changes in circumstances and market conditions. Put simply, static plans are bad plans. Make sure that all efforts are measured against milestones, benchmarks, deadlines, budgets, etc. If the plan needs to be nuanced in order to achieve success, then have the flexibility engineered into your plan to allow for such changes.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below…

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    Rick Mueller

    November 7, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    Mike, albeit your intentions appear honorable, there’s a reason why Christensen has been hailed as one of the great contemporary business thinkers, and it’s not because he defines the phenomena behind his observations in some nebulous way. It’s rather because when your objective is to develop a product or service based on a technology/methodology which provides a quantum level of competitive advantage – one which changes the industry such that the market comes to you rather than the other way around – something that (many times) not even a century of relatively un-insightful management can screw up – you want Disruptive Innovation defined per the Christensen observations.

    There won’t be enough room in this note to go into all of the reasons why that is – and what the Christensen protocol entails exactly, but you are most welcome to join us at the Disruptive Innovation forum at LinkedIn where we try and make that difference (and the difference it brings to your business) ever more clear each and every day.

    Rick Mueller


      Mike Myatt

      November 7, 2011 at 5:19 pm

      Hi Rick:

      Thanks for your comment. Clayton’s insights are valuable and have contributed greatly to shaping the modern perspective on innovation best practices. That said, my point in authoring this post was merely to point out there are any number of path’s to creating disruption, and most of them occur within frameworks more commonly accessible than one would think. To hold to a design specific approach in finding disruptive opportunity is little more than a static approach. 

      Don’t just follow Clayton’s observations – build on them. Stop learning and begin unlearning. Innovate on what he has laid down as a foundation for moving beyond “best” practices to “next” practices. 


        Rick Mueller

        November 7, 2011 at 10:44 pm

        Hi Mike and thanks for your prompt and positive response,
        My concern would be in the expectations one should have of Disruption – you see, when the Christensen observations are followed to their specific conclusions they provide far greater certaintly of success than when disruption is allowed to devolve into becoming “whatever works”.

        One specific example would be that while it is well established that both radical and incremental innovations can be Disruptive well within the confines of the definition, it has also been shown (Raynor’s recent book has some examples) that dividing innovation into sustaining vs Disruptive, when combined with the type of organization (insider/incumbent vs outsider/Disruptor) provides a high-reliability indicator of probable success.

        Building on those observations is absolutely a good/great idea, but just like any structure, to be reliable under the widest variety of conditions – that which is built on top must be consistent with what the foundation was designed to support. Leveraging the specific definitions is key to deriving real benefit from Clayton’s work. The bulk of the ideas you have put forward are not just incremental, but are of the sustaining (rather than the Disruptive) type – and thus are not likely to result in the removal of incumbents (and their technology) from dominance – which is the whole point of Disruption.

        Thanks again for providing the opportunity to discuss,
        Rick Mueller


          Mike Myatt

          November 7, 2011 at 11:13 pm

          Hi Rick:

          Thanks for continuing the dialog. I agree with much of what you have stated. That said, it’s not always necessary to “replace incumbents (and their technology)” in order to create disruption. However it is necessary to align their thinking with the change initiatives in play.

          As a general rule, there are far too many guardians of the status quo. Likewise there are far too many out with the old, in with the new thinkers who represent little more than change agents solely for the sake of change. The key is to find balance – to always be on the lookout for the new disruptive opportunities, while not looking past the opportunity to discover the new from within the old. 

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