How to Solve Enterprise Problems with Multiple Innovation Types

Businesses tend to think of innovation in terms of product, process, or business models. Within those three domains of innovation are several innovation types that apply in different situations.

Man staring at a block made up of smaller blocks.

The innovation type that is best suited to the problem depends on two key factors: how well-defined the problem is, and how well-defined the skills domain is that is necessary to solve the problem. Based on these factors, business innovation author Greg Satell defines four main innovation types. Understanding these innovation types and the situations for which they’re best suited can help you direct your efforts and resources optimally. Here are the four innovation types.

Basic Research

Basic research doesn’t get a lot of attention in the world of innovation, but it is indispensable to it. Basic research makes the most sense when neither the problem nor the appropriate skills domain is well-defined. 

Disruptive innovations don’t spring fully-formed from innovative minds. They are based on years – perhaps decades – of discoveries of phenomena and connections. It is basic research that makes the discoveries and maps out the connections. Small or medium-sized businesses may not have an R&D lab, but they do have greater access to high-quality research than you may realize, primarily through partnerships with local higher education and federal programs.

Breakthrough Innovation

Breakthrough innovation is a good route to pursue when you have a well-defined problem, but the skills domain needed to solve it is unknown or not well-defined. Think of plastic food packaging. Our society has come to depend on it, but it causes problems, particularly in marine environments. Does this mean that the answer comes from polymer researchers in labs trying to develop new molecules that break down quickly?

Not necessarily. Breakthroughs have actually come from the field of botany, where food packaging made from natural resources like seaweed and mushrooms is being developed. Breakthrough innovation often reaches across disciplines for answers. 

Sustaining Innovation

Computer technician working on a project.

Sustaining innovation is perhaps the most common of the four innovation types. It’s faster-paced and works when both the problem and the skills domains are well-defined. Sustaining innovation frequently involves processes like road mapping, brainstorming, design thinking, and even acquisition of companies that solve similar problems. 

Sustaining innovation is innovation designed to help us get better at what we do. We know the market, we know what the problem is, and we know which skills are likeliest to be required to solve the problem.

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation comes from solving problems that are not well-defined but knowing which skills domains are probably going to be involved in solving them. Think of iTunes as a solution to the ill-defined problem in the early 2000s of “People hate buying entire CD albums to get one or two songs they like.” 

Steve Jobs had the skills domain locked down at Apple. The disruption came from putting those skill sets to work making it possible to deliver music in a form that was free of physical media, at a reasonable price, in a way that didn’t violate intellectual property rights. iTunes permanently disrupted how people purchase music.

There is no single path to innovation that always works, and organizations must not lock themselves into a single innovation strategy and expect it to get good results for every type of problem. Rather, innovation is more like a set of business tools. 

Just as you use more than a hammer and a saw to build a strong, functional house, you have to use multiple innovation types to build the products, processes, and business models that serve your business optimally. If you’re interested in learning more about putting innovation and disruption to work, we invite you to download our disruptive innovation infographic.

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