The Innovation Blog

Innovation versus Incrementalization

Posted by Creative Realities on October 6, 2010

One is good, two is better.

Lately, I’ve noticed a trend in our engagements with large companies.  They all have a single, functioning product pipeline into which all product/service ideas are funneled.  On the surface this is not a bad thing, actually quite the opposite, it’s a necessity – companies absolutely need some channel through which their products and/or services can be selected for a number of criteria, it makes important decisions and says go or no-go.  However, I am repeatedly seeing two critical flaws in organizations’ product development pipelines: 1) they start too far down the line, and 2) they don’t account for or protect truly innovative new ideas.  

What do I mean by they start too far down the line?  There is all too often no front-end to feed the pipeline with new ideas.  Where do they come from then?  Well, they tend to come from the same people over and over again.  Why is this bad?  Well, it means there can’t be any significant “newness” – these guys (or gals) are familiar with the requirements of the pipeline and build ideas to fit the funnel (which is why they are the only ones who can even offer up ideas).  Not only is this almost impossibly difficult to do, it means the only ideas that will even get to the beginning of the line will look a lot like the ideas that came before them – they’ll be one-offs.  This is flaw #2.

However, such incrementalism should not be negatively construed.  It has its place in business and in fact successful incrementalism more often than not funds the exploration of bigger, breakthrough ideas.  This is why there should be two parallel lines – one for the incremental, one for the breakthrough.

ParallelLines resized 600

The simple fact of the matter is that new, innovative ideas cannot be measured conventionally.  Established metrics are… established!  They were built around existing successful ideas and therefore fundamentally cannot be used to measure something that is truly new!  If you try to compare an innovative new idea to a big historic product success, the new idea will lose every time.  We know there is no immediate gratification in innovation, but the delayed gratification that comes with success after nurturing an idea to fruition is worth a thousand one-offs – and, don’t forget, those thousand one-offs helped make it possible.  It’s not a case of better or worse – I’m not saying Stage Gates are evil – the two channels are different, and as such are both necessary if you want a verdant and innovative product portfolio to work with on the other side. 


by Clay Maxwell - Business Innovationst (@Bizinovationist)

Topics: Clay Maxwell, Innovation, innovation consulting, breakthrough, new product development