The Value of Incremental Innovation

In this Blog 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 pipeline that is balanced, 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 management 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 a 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. By the way, 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.

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