It’s not easy leading innovation.  Especially these days.  You need to do more with less.  Take risks while guaranteeing results.  Keep up with competition through incremental innovation and redefine the industry with radical and disruptive innovation.  It’s maddening.  Until you find the Goldilocks Zone of adjacent innovation.

Adjacent Innovation: From Middle Child to Just Right

As HBS Professor Regina E. Herzlinger and her co-authors point out in a recent HBR article, the US is in the midst of an innovation crisis. The cost of lost productivity, estimated at over $10 trillion between 2006 and 2018, is a stark reminder of the economic consequences of a lack of innovation. This figure, equivalent to $95,000 per US worker, should serve as a wake-up call to the importance of innovation in driving economic growth.

The authors identify the root cause of this loss as the ‘polarized approach companies take to innovation.’ While companies focus on incremental innovation, the safe and reliable oldest child of the innovation family, the VCs chase after radical, transformative innovations, the wild, charismatic, free-spirited youngest child.  Meanwhile, adjacent innovation – new offerings and business models fo existing customers or new customers for existing offerings and business models – is, like the middle child, too often overlooked.

It’s time to rediscover it.  In fact, it’s also time to embrace and pursue it as the most promising path back to growth.   While incremental innovation is safe and reliable, it’s also the equivalent of cold porridge. Radical or transformative innovation is sexy, but, like hot porridge, it’s more likely to scorch than sustain you. Adjacent innovation, however, is just right – daring enough to change the game and leapfrog the competition and safe enough to merit investment and generate short-term growth.

Proof in the Porridge: 4x the returns in ½ the time

Last year, I worked with an industrial goods company. Their products aren’t sexy, and their brands are far from household names, but they make the things that make America run and keep workers (and the public) safe. The pandemic’s supply chain disruptions battered their business, and their backlog ballooned from weeks to months and even years.  Yet amidst these challenges, they continued to look ahead, and what they saw was a $6M revenue cliff that had to be filled in three years and a product and innovation pipeline covered in dust and cobwebs.

From Day 1, we agreed to focus on adjacent innovation.  For four weeks, we brainstormed, interviewed customers, and analyzed their existing offerings and capabilities, ultimately developing three concepts – two new products for existing customers and one existing product repositioned to serve a new customer.  After eight more weeks of work, we had gathered enough data to reject one of the concepts and double down on the other two.  Three months later, the teams had developed business cases to support piloting two of the concepts.

It took 6 months to go from a blank piece of paper to pilot approval.

It took just another 12 months to record nearly $25M in new revenue.

Those results are more than “just right.”

Be Goldilocks. Pursue Adjacent Innovation

Every organization can pursue adjacent innovation.  In fact, most of the companies we consider amongst the world’s “Most Innovative” have that reputation because of adjacent innovation. 

How will you become your organization’s Innovation Goldilocks and use adjacent innovation to create “just right” growth?