The Business Case for Incremental Innovation

Innovation can start small and snowball over time.

Does innovation have to be enormous and grandiose? We often like to fondly remember world-changing innovations as just that, but that ignores all the good ideas that were overhyped, poorly implemented, and quickly forgotten. Remember the hype around the Segway? Innovation doesn’t have to be, and sometimes can’t be, massive and world-changing. That doesn’t make incremental innovation any less important.

Why Incremental Innovation?
There are three reasons to innovate in increments instead of sweeping everything off the table and starting over. The first is that, in the broad strokes, that might simply not make any sense. If you’re running a restaurant, you don’t throw out your best selling dishes just because your chef finds them boring.

The second is that perhaps, at the moment, the stage just isn’t set for a broad, industry-changing innovation. Apple is often the most pointed-to when it comes to innovation, but the iPod is a good example: The iPod itself was innovative, making some big, obvious changes to the MP3 player and the software side of music. But once the iPod was out there, it mostly changed in increments — an updated click wheel here, a slimmer chassis there. The same is true of any innovative product; once it arrives, the big innovations are usually already done.

Third, there’s the question of need. Anyone can have big ideas, but do your customers want them? What problem does this big innovation solve for your customers? How does it help? If there’s not a clear answer, then incremental innovation might make more sense.

Innovation is a steady climb, not a sudden jump.

How To Innovate In Increments
Incremental innovation can often be where the magic really happens. For example, who thought the real innovation the iPhone would introduce to most of the world would be the touchscreen? With the arrival of the iPhone and its flood of imitators, the costs of touchscreens were driven down to the point where every product that needed to save space and didn’t need physical controls started using them.

And that’s a good place to start: How can you update parts of what you do? Is there a better tool to control things? Is there new software that can streamline your process? What inspiration can you draw from other products?

Another place to look is your customers and employees. Look at what people like about your product, and what they think could be improved. Look closely at how things are used, as well. The Slinky may be well known as a kid’s toy, for example, but it got its start as a spring developed by a Naval engineer to keep instruments stable at sea. To this day there’s not much difference between your standard metal Slinky and the springs that inspired it.

Finally, you should ask yourself about the little things you’d like to polish and refine. We all have our pet peeves and preferences, and it’s worth inquiring after those and see where they take you.

Incremental innovation is often the best way to get innovation done. So look at what you can change in the details, and you might be surprised by just how much innovation you can find. To learn more, get the Innovation Starter Kit.

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