Incremental Change vs. Disruptive Innovation: What’s the Difference?

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When you’re comparing incremental innovation vs disruptive innovation, what’s the difference? Incremental innovation is small, modular change that takes place slowly over time, and allows for a gradual development of the product and its marketplace. Disruption is a change to the market that is so powerful and different that it requires others in the field to follow suit or be left behind.

One example of incremental innovation would be Coca Cola. From the initial formula containing illicit substances to Diet Coke to the current-day product with a variety of flavor offerings, their product development strategy has been a slow burn of innovation.

On the other hand, one of the most recognizable examples of recent disruption is Netflix. You could always rent movies and old TV shows (remember Blockbuster?), but Netflix was the first to turn its offering into an on-demand subscription model, accessible from the comfort of our own homes, changing the market and ultimately putting Blockbuster out of business. Even their original mail-in subscription service was unique and paved the way for their later innovative streaming options. 

Disruption can also be forced on industries, whether they want them or not. Zoom, for example, followed an incremental change approach from its start in 2011 that saw them building a videoconferencing platform as a business tool. They steadily added and refined features to create a useful tool for connected businesses.

Yet in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they were thrown into entirely new markets and found a rapidly expanding user base, requiring innovation strategy and change management to meet the needs of students, employees, and people who needed social connections.

While incremental innovation has served us well for much of history, disruption is pulling to the forefront as a market norm and seems to be the new always-on mode of the future. In this fast-paced world, businesses and organizations must find better ideas, lower costs, and deliver ideas to market faster. Over half of executives, across a number of professional fields who were questioned, anticipate that there will be digital disruption in their market in the next 12 months.

So how do you prepare for this sort of disruption? Well, one way is to always keep your eye on the horizon (and not just on the next quarter’s financial goals that you have in front of you). Look to your customers and employees for important trends and use those signals to source solutions and create incremental change that will serve the future of your organization. Have a change management strategy in place to handle surprises.

Of course, that strategy which is summarized in one paragraph is a lot more complicated than it sounds. What if your disruptive solution cannibalizes the existing business? What if many of your attempts fail to launch? What if your leadership doesn’t see the value of the new directions you’re putting forward? There are many ways that you can stumble, but if you’re only focusing on incremental improvements (which is important, too), at some point you’ll be left behind.

To read more about the different kinds of innovation, check out these resources on breakthroughradical, and quantum innovation.

To read more about disruptive innovation, and to find out how to utilize IdeaScale and the power of the crowd to create disruptive innovation, download our complimentary infographic.

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