Innovation – incremental vs radical

Gaetan Schmidt
5th Nov 2017
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Innovation incremental vs radical
There are different ways of looking at innovation and planning for it in your company or organization.

One of the distinctions that can be made, is whether the innovation is incremental or radical.

Lets take a step back and look at how we plan for innovation. It is easy for certain companies to claim that their organization is not an innovative one, that innovation is reserved for those with large R&D budgets or internationally experienced, properly qualified super-star employees. These excuses mean that no attempt to innovate is made. They opt out, which is a pity. We have great examples of small companies making huge impacts across the world, but we will explore those in a separate post.
Any company can decide to be innovative. The questions need to be asked:


Where do we want to see innovation? In the products or services we deliver? In the production process? In other non-core parts of the business like how we finance projects or communicate or market ourselves?


How radical do we want to be? Do we want to keep getting better or do we want to lead the industry with dramatic new approaches?


How much risk can we cope with? Are we risk averse meaning that we don’t want to do anything too experimental? Or are we risk averse meaning that we know if we are not radical, we may no longer exist in a few months or years time?


Are we going to keep innovation in the hands of our senior staff, or do we democratise the process and trust all our staff to bring their insights and experiences and ideas together to find something that a small group of us may have missed entirely?

Lets look at just one of those sets of questions:

How radical do we want to be?

Do we want to keep getting better or do we want to lead the industry with radically new approaches?

A few approaches came out of the famous Toyota Production System but the one most lay people recognise is that of Kaizen - the approach of continuous, incremental improvement.

As a concept, Kaizen is easily understood and adopted. It calls for constant vigilance, daily, on how to re-access a process and tweak it, focus it just a little more to be just a little better than yesterday. It is applied to much more than innovation and work processes with people adopting it for learning skills and weight loss!

Gradual improvement allows you to leverage your existing skills and techniques and make those small product improvements that allow you to release a new version of software or smart phone or a new model of a car that is just *that* much better and more desirable than an older model.

But in a disruptive world, using Kaizen as your only approach to innovation could lead you to be very efficient and skilled in an area that is no longer relevant in your industry.
To stay ahead of your competitors, you need to invest part of your effort on the opposite of Kaizen - Kaikaku. Kaiak is radical change. It implies discontinuous innovation, not changes on the same continuum. (It actually means to “change to be worse” instead of “change to be good”, but perhaps the “worse”element is just discomfort and we should learn to cope with that.)

Radical change is risky because you are bringing a new concept to the market, one where you may have to convince consumers that it is worth trying, worth them changing their systems or lifestyles. You may come to market too soon when supporting infrastructure is not mature enough. There may be legislative or production hurdles to overcome. It may take more capital than you have available to get this new change in place.

The risk here is that if you don’t take this leap, someone else may, and you will be left irrelevant. Entire industries or product lines may become obsolete overnight, with the introduction of a new approach.

Would you want to be the risk averse, non-innovative producer of rotary telephones, the best manual typewriter on the market, dial up modems, floppy discs, Walkmans?


It is an uncertain world when we consider innovation. But if we fail to, then we can be certain of this: we will soon be left behind.


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