My name is Robyn and I am a recovering Innovation Snob.

I didn’t realize I was an Innovation Snob until a few days ago when I read the following in CB Insights’ report State of Innovation: Survey of 677 Corporate Strategy Executives, “Despite deep fear and talk of disruption, companies invest in the small stuff… 78% of innovation portfolios are allocated to continuous innovation instead of disruptive risks.”

“That’s exactly what they should be doing,” I thought to myself. “After all, the Golden Ratio often preached when discussing innovation portfolios is that 70% should be allocated to Incremental or Sustaining innovations, 20% to Adjacent innovations, and 10% to Disruptive or Breakthrough Innovations.”

That’s when it hit me:

  1. When talking about “Incremental Innovation,” we actually mean “Incremental Improvement.”
  2. Because we mean “Improvement” (even when we say “Innovation”), we don’t value Incremental Innovation in the same way that we value the innovations that introduce truly new things (products, services, technologies, business models) to the world and dismissing it as “less than” those “higher forms” of innovation.
  3. Dismissing Incremental Innovation as “less important/valuable than” other types of innovation is not only snobbish and hypocritical, it is incredibly ignorant. Incremental Innovation is exactly this type of innovation that a company must do in order to stay competitive today AND fund the Adjacent and Breakthrough innovations that will define it’s future.
  4. I am 100% guilty of telling people that Incremental Innovation is important and then rolling my eyes when someone pitches an incremental improvement as innovation

I hate it when I get all self-righteous and judgey about someone or something only to realize that I am just as guilty.

Cher from Clueless making a face after hitting a car

Ooops, my bad

How did we get here?

There’s probably lots of reasons for this gap between what we say (“Incremental Innovation is an essential component of any innovation portfolio”) and what we do (“Incremental innovation isn’t real innovation”) but these are probably the 3 biggest drivers:

  1. Incremental Innovation will not make you famous. No company has ever landed on Fast Company’s “Most Innovative” list because they launched better/faster/cheaper/easier to use versions of their existing products. No one has ever been invited to speak at TED because they made a slight improvement to someone else’s idea.
  2. Incremental Innovation will not make you rich. Entrepreneurs with dreams of starting a unicorn company (and realizing the massive payout that comes with it) don’t look for things they can improve, they look for things they can “disrupt.” Companies know that Incremental Innovation is better suited to helping them maintain their place in their industry, not catapult ahead to the top of the heap. Consultants know that no company will hire them to help with Incremental Innovation, so they publish and preach and sell the promise of cheap and risk-free breakthroughs.
  3. We are so desperate to be seen as Innovative that we’re afraid to be honest. Words matter and, even though it’s a buzz-word, companies love the word “innovation.” Their annual reports and quarterly calls are filled with it, employees are measured on it, valuation premiums are calculated using it. As a result, we know that we are more likely to get budget, people, support, recognitions, raises, and promotions if we say we’re working on “Innovation” even though, in our heart of hearts, we know it’s an improvement.

Where do we go from here?

Cher from Clueless packing boxes for emergency relief

Captain of the “Incremental is Innovation, Too!” campaign

We have 3 options:

  1. Keep calling incremental changes “innovation
  2. Stop calling incremental changes “innovation” and start calling them “improvements”
  3. Start using more specific language to describe innovation instead of just using “innovation” as a one-size-fits-whatever-I-want-it-to term

Personally, I’m in favor of #3 because it recognizes that doing something new or different is innovation and therefore difficult and forces organizations to be more disciplined in how they make decisions, especially ones related to resources allocation.

For those wanting to pursue option #3, there are lots of ways to go about it and I’ll cover many of them in an upcoming post. But the easiest way to start is by asking three simple questions:

  1. Does what we’re doing improve something that already exists (e.g. make it easier to use, cheaper, more accessible)?
  2. Does what we’re doing change the way we go to market (e.g. from selling through a retailer to going DTC) or make money (e.g. selling subscriptions instead of having the consumer pay for an item when they buy it) or who we’re targeting (e.g. from targeting women to targeting children)?
  3. Does what we’re doing change how we go to market and how we make money and who we target/compete against?

If you answered Yes to #1, you’re doing Incremental Innovation. Yes to #2 is Adjacent. Yes to #3 is Breakthrough.

All 3 are essential components of a health Innovation Portfolio. Each requires different people and processes to make them work. Each deserves recognition and respect from peers, leaders, press, stockholders, and the general public.

Let’s be honest, I’m not sure that I’ll ever be as excited for Incremental Innovation as I am for Breakthrough innovation. I can’t imagine ooohhh-ing and ahhhh-ing over it the way that I do with breakthroughs. But I need to respect, value, and celebrate it, and the people who do it, as much as I respect, value and celebrate other types of innovations and the teams that work on them.

My name is Robyn and I am a RECOVERING innovation snob.