The Innovation Blog

David Culton

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Incremental vs. Game-Changing Innovation

Posted by David Culton on Nov 7, 2010 2:56:00 PM

This past week I got sucked into what I thought was a pretty weak online debate. The question posed was, "Is Incremental innovation the enemy of Breakthrough Innovation?"

As expected almost everyone said "yes," (and some quite emphatically). This was pretty discouraging, because if managed properly Incremental is Breakthrough's best friend. Apparently this is a somewhat counter-intuitive position, because I got hosed by the responses of others. This usually means I'm onto something.

Here's why Incremental is Breakthrough's (we like to say Game-Changing's) best friend:

  1. First of all, you can't run a company without being good at incrementalism. It keeps you in the game. And if done propoerly it provides short-term (and I stress "short-term") competitive advantage. Or, for those who want to only be fast-followers (a very legitimate innovation strategy), then you must have a well-oiled Incremental process for playing catch-up. One could argue that Fast-Follower is where the money is made.
  2. Incremental is relatively low-risk (a statement I often get challenged on). The strategy is clear, the cost of failure is pretty low, and the rewards contribute to the short-term (there's that term again) bottom line. Incremental failures don't threaten the survival of the enterprise. This means that a strong, successful Incremental engine should throw off some funds for taking higher-risk bets, most of which will fail. Incremental not only keeps a company in the here & now game, it also keeps the company in the longer-term breakthrough game, if it chooses to play there.

So, what's the debate about? Incremental is the enemy of breakthrough when a company invests all of it's innovation budget and bandwidth on it, which is a very easy thing to do. Incremental is more comfortable. The funding and resourcing of it can be pushed down to the operating divisions/SBUs, where decision-making can be consensus-based. But the decision to pursue, fund, resource, and provide air cover for going after the game-changers requires a whole different model, and it starts at the top, which is another reason why companies stay within their Incremental comfort zones.

The problem arises when an organization that claims it wants to be a game-changer becomes totally consumed by its pursuit of incrementalism, with 100% of it's budget and resources focused only there.

Truly innovative companies must take a portfolio mentality for their Strategic Innovation Agendas. Depending on the nature of the industry/industries being served, they should be apportioning anywhere from 1/4 to 1/3 of their innovation capacity on the game-changers.

In Built to Last, Jim Collins & Jerry Porras talk about "The Genius of the AND versus The Tyranny of the OR." Healthy innovators are always pursuing both. It's absurd to think otherwise.

Topics: Innovation, innovation consulting, breakthrough innovation, Championed Teamwork, leadership, strategic innovation, strategy, growth, Strategic Goals, criteria for innovation, decision-making, breakthrough, new product development, Essentials for Innovation, Risk, Management

The Humorous Bazooka: Enemy of New Ideas

Posted by David Culton on Oct 13, 2010 1:27:00 AM

Hu-mor-ous ba-zoo-ka (hew’mer-us be-zoo’ka), n. 1. a funny, witty comment that, intentionally or unintentionally, shoots down another person’s idea.  2. innovation killer
Think back to the last brainstorming session in which you participated, where the goal was to come up with innovative ideas for your business.  How many creative ideas were put forth for the group’s consideration?  How many of those really new ones survives the barrage of negativity and doubt that usually greets new concepts?  And, of the ideas that did survive, how many have been implemented for are still moving in that direction?  Very likely, few made it into development and fewer still—if any—actually are on their way to market.  You’ve got the creativity part down; you just haven’t learned how to be innovative!
If your company is typical, I’ll wager that plenty of good ideas surfaces during the brainstorming but few, if any, of the truly breakthrough ones made it out of the room alive.  Most of the truly new ideas were probably shot down with a barrage of humorous bazookas—the act of shooting down another’s idea with a witty barb.
This tendency to lob verbal grenades at new ideas has been and still remains so pervasive that I coined the term The Bazooka Syndrome in 1982, when I first began my career as a creative problem-solving facilitator.  Every time I have described this behavior to a new group of people, it has hit a responsive chord.  Everyone instantly identifies with The Bazooka Syndrome because we have all been hit by these verbal missiles.  And most people will also admit, with shamed faces, that they have been guilty of using bazookas on the ideas of others (colleagues, spouses, kids, family, and friends).
The Bazooka Syndrome captures what we unintentionally, but instinctively, do to new ideas.  We make fun of them.  We point out every single problem.  We end up annihilating them.  We point out every single problem.  We end up annihilating them, all in the spirit of constructive flaw-finding and, allegedly, idea improvement.
For creative people who are good at generating fresh ideas, being hit by a bazooka blast is enormously discouraging.  Frustration abounds in organizations that are skilled at dreaming up new ideas yet ineffective at protecting them from the bazooka wielders that exist everywhere.
It’s very discouraging to watch competitors successfully launch innovations based on ideas you tossed around but failed to pursue because you were gunned down by a bazooka.  Are the phrases “Gee, we thought of that months (or years!) ago” and “we tried that but couldn’t make it work” commonly heard within the walls of your organization?  If so, your company is undoubtedly populated by bazooka experts and, as a result, is short on innovation.

Mark Sebell

Topics: Innovation, creative problem solving, humorous bazooka