“Even Cavemen Learned That You Innovate or Die!”

illustration of cavemanWith a dollop of biblical, wine-making and cavemen references thrown in, the question of “how might” a company innovate exercised minds around the world for an hour today.

Running on Twitter as part of the weekly #innochat session, a group of innovation experts, practitioners and gawkers (like myself) looked at where organizations fall on the innovation spectrum and what challenges they face there.

Although innovation can come in many guises, this week’s moderator, Dallas-based Gwen Ishmael (@Gwen_ishmael), asked the experts to assume there were three points on the innovation continuum: incremental, breakthrough and transformational. The discussion then hinged on the question of “how to” innovate rather than “do we?”

Where are most organizations?

Summing up the consensus, Ishmael said, “It sounds like most of us agree that incremental innovation is most common — safer, easier, more defined.”

“The focus is on incremental becuase it can be measured in the early stages,” said David Culton (@davidculton) in Rhode Island. Harvey Briggs (@OBX_Harvey) agreed. “Incremental is both the easiest and most comfortable, thus tends to get the most attention,” he said.

“With all good intent, I think they mean to innovate aross the spectrum, but without definition, it ends up incremental,” said Jeffrey Phillips (@ovoinnovation) in Raleigh, NC.

Culton said the focus on incremental is safer because “with breakthrough [innovation] there is too much senior management skin in the game.” Anything other than incremental “requires business model innovation,” said Briggs. “Which is why radical innovation often struggles,” said Kevin McFarthing (@InnovationFixer) in Oxford in the UK.

Speaking of his work, Jose Briones (@Brioneja) in Dallas said, “Yes, I do follow the innovation as continuum approach using value delivered as the differentiator.”

“Too many companies conflate all innovation types in to one bucket and wonder why all they get are incremental solutions,” said author Saul Kaplan (@skap5), also in Rhode Island. Briones said that is because companies use a Stage-Gate filter “to manage them all — with predictable results.” Even companies that try radical innovation “fall in the trap of managing them like incremental and most fail at it,” he said.

While most organizations will claim innovation is good, Matt Recio (@mattbrat1) in Atlanta said that is a no-brainer. “Even cavemen learned that you innovate or die!” he said.three model cavemen

My contribution was that incremental innovation should not be knocked since it had served Japanese manufacturers so well. McFarthing agreed, but said it should be part of a larger innovation porfolio.”All companies should manage innovation as a portfolio,” Briones agreed. Incremental “must be complemented with radical and breakthrough, otherwise we get Blackberry,” he said.

“Incremental from a greater vision is one thing. Sadly, I think incremental with no vision is the pattern,” said Lois Martin (@LoisMarketing) in Atlanta.

Where should organizations be?

“That is really a situational question determined by overarching strategy, market trends and maturity, and also the stomach for it!” Culton said. Ned Kumar (@nedkumar) in Memphis, Tenn., said organizaitons with a separate innovation group are further along the spectrum. “Firms skew towards incremental otherwise,” he said.

In a comment reminiscent of Porter’s dictum that Operational Effectiveness is Not Strategy (PDF), Culton said less risky, less valuable incremental innovations are easily copied by competitors. Briggs added, “You should be simultaneously improving your offerings while developing their replacements.” A company’s “position on the spectrum should be a strategic commitment, not an accident or response to a threat,” said Carlos Chacón (@carloschacond) in Caracas, Venezuela.

“Yet incumbents are notoriously wrong about predicting the rate of change and competitive threats,” said Sandra Maxey (@sandymaxey) in North Carolina. But “aiming for transformational tends to be the realm of the start up. Sometimes it’s hard for established companies to play there,” Culton said.

Part II of this discussion is here.


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