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August 26, 2010



As the author of the above-mentioned article, I want to first thank you for using the article for your discussion point today. I think the more we promote dialog regarding innovation, the more these types of conversations contribute to reader value.

I think we’re both in agreement with regards to the importance of incremental achievements - there was no intent on my part to downplay that aspect of creating value. But our opinions continue to differ with regard to the semantics of improvement versus innovation. I still think the two words are used interchangeably far too often and that, in the end, this ‘dumbing-down’ of innovation does a disservice to the truly innovative ideas that exist today (and tomorrow).

While we also agree on the importance of honing basic innovation skills, we differ slightly in the best method to do so. Let me use your example of using Larry Bird’s work ethic and diligence as the model for organizations to emulate. Everything Larry did in those practice sessions improved his game; and he rose to become one of the greatest players ever; but there was nothing innovative about his process. Hard work and diligence have long been known contribute to success and Larry was certainly not the first to realize this nor was he the first to translate this into success. His greatness was more a result more of superior execution (he practiced harder than anyone else in the league). A great lesson to all on the importance of hard work, but not so much on how to maintain your innovation skills.

Here’s a basketball example I would consider a better model for honing your innovation skills. Up until the 1940s, the set shot was considered the best (and only) way to shoot the basketball. There was no such thing as the jump shot until a college player by the name of Kenny Sailors used the shot while playing for the University of Wyoming. Sailors developed the shot out of necessity because as a teen, he was continually getting his shot blocked while practicing against his older (and much taller) brother. Hard work and diligence would only take Sailors so far: he had to radically change the way he trained and played in order to compete against his brother. That’s how the jump shot was born. Sailors, by the way, led Wyoming to the 1943 NCAA championship, gathering MVP honors for his performance. He was a three-time All-American and later played in the NBA.

I think the difference between these two examples is important. In both cases, hard work and diligence were cornerstones for their outstanding performances, but it was Sailors who tinkered with his shot until he perfected the innovative jump shot. We want those in our organizations to not only work hard, but we also want them to get into habit of tinkering, evaluating, discarding when necessary, and eventually finding break-through solutions. That’s where Kenny Sailor’s approach differed from Larry Bird’s approach.

I appreciate you reading my article and taking the time to discuss on your blog here. Would love for this to be a first step to a continued dialog and discussion.


James Todhunter

Hi Pat,

Thanks for responding to my article. I am not so sure that we do disagree on the distinction between innovations and small improvements. Nor do we necessarily disagree on the importance of distinguishing classes of innovation based on the value they create.

Where I do sense a divergence is in two areas: 1) that there is a continuum of value creation that these two outcomes both exist within and 2) that there is an important distinction between innovation and the methods to achieve innovation.

The first point seems rather obvious. Consider two events. In event 1, a new concept is found that leads to the creation of a new market category. In event 2, a new method of production is found that allows a company to change the fundamental business model driving an existing industry. Both of the events would be recognized as important innovations. Yet, they clearly may have very different scope in terms of impact and value potential. There are many other examples, both hypothetical and historical that can be identified to paint the picture of this change continuum. Where one draws the line defining what is and is not innovation is unfortunately somewhat subjective.

The second point is also important. You seem to have misinterpreted my example of Larry Bird. I was not suggesting that practicing shots was itself a novel concept. Rather, that since making shots is a critical success skill for Larry's chosen area, that he understood the important of practicing that skill. Too many innovation practitioners do not recognize this need. Sometimes this is because they don't understand that there are specific skills and practices of innovation that can be developed. Other times, it may be personal hubris that gets in the way. In either case, the result is the same.

Note that innovation skills need not themselves be innovative in nature. It is the outcomes of their application that we term innovations.

Teams that are given the opportunity to practice innovation skills are more able to produce the high-values outcomes of innovation on demand because they have developed facility with the methods and tools of the practice.

In most organizations, big-I innovation is not an everyday occurrence. On the other hand, little-i innovation opportunities are much more frequent. It is a big mistake to squander these opportunities for small innovation by not seeing them as such and not fostering the environment that encourages the continuous development of innovation capability.




Well said. Thanks Jim.


Great post - I fully agree.

I think, incremental and radical innovation are complementary. Both are required to manage a balanced innovation portfolio. Furthermore, incremental innovation secures and exploits breakthroughs through "step-by-step" refinement.

Best regards,
Ralph-Christian Ohr

James Todhunter

Great contribution, Ralph.

I like your refinement arguement very much.

Also, the concept of maximizing the value of the corporate IP protfolio is highly topical. I see a great deal of interest in this strategy as I talk to global C-execs and board members.

All the best,



I tend to agree with you especially in 'How do you define SW Innovations.? These little changes in the use of exisiting codes and recurssion are claimed as Innovation .Minor changes are good lets go for the REAL 'WOW' change .
Derrick Roberts
RamData, Bangalore India
An excellent feedback from many , they have their View Point.

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