A colleague pointed out a post by Patrick Lefler that appeared on Chuck Frey’s Innovation Tools site this week. In this article, Patrick proclaims that improvement is not innovation. Of course, in the purest sense, the author is correct. While all innovation seeks to deliver an improvement, not all improvements are innovative. But, there is a very important aspect of improvement that, in his fervor to make his point, Patrick has ignored.
Coincidentally, I presented a webinar just yesterday on the topic of harnessing innovation creativity to drive corporate value. One of the key points I touched on was the importance of incremental innovation. Yes, incremental innovation is a good and necessary part of building a sustainable culture and environment for continuous innovation.
Breakthrough innovation, incremental innovation, minor improvement—these are all points on a continuum of value creating solution generation. Incremental innovation is very beneficial to an organization trying to develop the core competence needed to support a high-performance innovation system. Specifically, incremental innovation delivers both short and long term benefits. In the short term, immediate business benefits can be realized—extended revenue life of a product, increased market share, better contribution to margin, etc. In the long term, incremental innovation provides a low risk platform to hone the basic innovation skills needed for successful, repeatable breakthrough innovation practice.
This last point, honing basic innovation skills, is too often overlooked. Most organizations lack these basic skills and the knowledge of innovation best practices. These skills must be developed and practiced constantly. Even seasoned innovation workers should take a page from Basketball legend Larry Bird’s play book. Larry was well known for his work ethic and diligence in maintaining his skills. He would arrive for a game hours before anyone else and warm up by taking hundreds of practice shots.
Efforts to improve, even modest ones, are opportunities to practice innovation thinking and skills. The adept application of innovation practices can move a change further along the continuum of novelty and value creation so that what might have been a minor improvement becomes an incremental innovation that creates strong competitive differentiation.
So while Patrick is correct in the assertion that simple improvements are not innovations, one should not eschew incremental achievements. In fact sometimes the road to breakthrough innovations is paved a brick at a time. In my own research team where we are constantly pushing the limits and redefining the concept of the possible in the area of applied computational linguistics, we often use the expression “step by step” to describe the path to innovation success.
Of course, it’s important to remember that you must be constantly trying to reach further up the novelty-value ladder in order to find the breakthroughs that will provide you optimal market position. But don’t forget to embrace incremental innovation, too. It’s a good thing.