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

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What IS the difference between an incremental change and disruption?

When you’re comparing incremental innovation vs disruptive innovation, what is the difference, really? Incremental innovation is exactly as it sounds; 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 the current-day product with a variety of flavor offerings, this company has been a slow burn of innovation.

On the other hand, one of the most prominent and recognizable examples of recent disruption is one of our favorite products: Netflix. You could always rent movies and old TV shows (remember Blockbuster?), but Netflix was the first of its kind to turn its offering into an on-demand subscription model, accessible from the comfort of our own homes, completely 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. Some other examples of disruptive innovation throughout the ages might be Zoom, Spotify, Wikipedia, the personal computer, mobile telephones, radiography, and many others.

While incremental innovation has served us just fine 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 current super-connected, fast-paced world, businesses and organizations must work harder to be competitive. This means finding better ideas, lowering costs, and getting 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 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 that will serve the future of your organization.

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 are only focusing on incremental improvements (which is important, too), at some point you will be left behind.

To read more about the different kinds of innovation, check out these resources on breakthrough, radical, 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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