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[R]Evolutionary Innovation

Posted On  October 25, 2012

Is a laser-like focus on radical and disruptive innovation the only way for a company to stay relevant? David Aaker, marketing professor and authority on brands, thinks so.  Seth Godin another marketing guru, recently blogged about the curse of incremental improvement.  Are they right?  Is radical innovation the only path to success?

Well, yes.  And…no.

Take Aaker’s research: brands that create new categories can change their fortunes thanks to huge gains in market share, and by leaving their competitors less relevant.  We are all ready to sign up for that.  Can you say “Apple versus Blackberry?”

Godin suggests that rushing products to market with merely incremental innovations means those companies can only “grab enough share to pay [for the innovation].”  But while Research In Motion is clinging to relevance, other mobile brands like Moto’s Droid and Samsung have thrived despite the game-changing innovations of Apple.  They’ve made incremental enhancements or offered less pricey (in itself an innovation) alternatives…and shipped tens of millions of units.

Apple demonstrates that both kinds of innovation are critical.  The first iPhone was a revolutionary product and an instant success; the iPhone 5, it could be argued, offers nothing “revolutionary” whatsoever – just a few new key features, none of them groundbreaking, and technical upgrades (a faster chip!  Bigger battery!  Better camera!).  Some of those, like 4G LTE and a bigger screen, were dictated by the competition’s own incremental advances.

So it’s clear that pursuing both revolutionary and evolutionary innovation can deliver in spades.  Knowing where or when to apply either is the question that earns the Tim Cooks and Jony Ives of the world their pay checks.

Wayne Gretzky’s father’s offered this advice to the famed hockey player: “Skate where the puck’s going, not where it’s been.”  What play is in front of you?  A short pass to move the puck closer to the goal or a slapshot into the neck from mid-ice?

That’s why we recommend product development activities that focus – judiciously – on both revolutionary and evolutionary innovation.


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