Short-term or long-term, what goal is your team working to achieve?
Innovation or incremental improvement? It’s a question that faces any business looking toward the future. Do they go in a radical, and potentially risky, new direction? Or do they stick with what works, steadily building on what they’ve already done? While it’s rarely an either/or situation, it’s often a tough divide to straddle. So, which do you choose, and when?
Innovation Vs. Incremental Improvement
We should define what we mean by both.
Innovation, in a business sense, is a big, sweeping change. Think how the iPhone changed the mobile phone industry overnight or how Tesla disproved, in the most dramatic way possible, that consumers do, in fact, want electric cars.
Incremental improvement is the difference between the iPhone 5 and the iPhone 6, or the Tesla Model S and its upgrades. This is important because it shows smart companies judiciously use both strategies.
Both, however, have risks. Innovation is a gamble and sometimes you lose, while incremental improvement can look like spinning your wheels. So how do you balance the two for your business?
First of all, it costs nothing to consider ideas and to encourage your team to think big. You and your team should constantly be asking yourselves what the future of your industry is, be looking closely at how your customers are using what you build, and how what you build might be applied in other ways. One eye should always be focused on the future and all avenues to it should be explored.
Encouraging Incremental Improvement
The tech industry is obsessed with “feature creep.” A great product comes along, then, slowly, more and more ideas are bolted onto it until it’s a jack of all tools, but a master of none. Look no further than the legendary Swiss Army Knife. While you can still find the elegant, classic knife, you can also find staggering monstrosities that exist mostly to serve somebody’s ego instead of being a functional pocket tool!
Open the door to a better business.
Feature creep is a good illustration of the perils of incremental improvement, but the benefits of making your product better are clear and often obvious. Why wouldn’t you add features customers demand or overhaul the features they wish were better? It’s just a matter of ensuring that you don’t put the cart before the horse. After all, are you more likely these days to use a Swiss Army Knife for a job around the house, or pull out a Leatherman?
Balancing The Two
There can, and should, be room for both strategies. Innovation often launches from incremental improvement. The laptops we all use now started as room-sized monstrosities, with technology slowly refined across decades of subtle refinements. The real innovation wasn’t a faster processor or better memory. It was a spreadsheet program businesses could use to run their own books. That made the exorbitant price of computers at the time finally justifiable to many businesses, spreading computers far and wide, making them a feature of business. In turn, the ubiquity of computers meant that businesses found value in the formerly obscure discipline of connecting them via phone lines, creating the internet.
So, look closely at how you can improve in the short term. But always, always keep an eye on the future. Need help with either? Join the IdeaScale community