Monday, April 2, 2012

It's in the increments

Glenn Fleischmann has a very smart article up on TidBITS arguing that Apple's competitors keep trying to match it with big-splash innovation -- LTE, bigger screens, 3D -- when what makes Apple different is its commitment to ongoing, incremental innovation within existing products. The consequence of this disparity is computer and phone makers like Dell and Samsung are hoping that you'll buy every new device when it comes out, while Apple assumes that you'll own your device for three years or more and continues to deliver updates throughout that lifespan. The outcome: customer loyalty.

In part this disparity is a function of different business plans, but I also suspect that companies other than Apple just don't respect incremental innovation. I've seen the same in my work. When leaders speak of innovation, they're generally thinking of big, disruptive, change-the-world thinking. That's the sort of product that Clayton Christensen wrote about in The Innovator's Dilemma, and it's also the sort of sexy change that gets people excited.

Unfortunately, it's a conception of innovation that leads businesses right over the cliff.

There's no doubt that big-splash innovation happens, and when it does the world truly does change. The smart phone, the personal computer, television, radio, the automobile, antibiotics; these had enormous effects. However, truly disruptive products only come around once in a while, and it's very difficult (perhaps impossible) to predict which drawing-board ideas will be disruptive and which will fail to find a market. Betting the company on big-splash innovation is like gambling with money you can't afford to lose: it's bold, it's exciting, you do have a chance to win big, but it's more than likely that you'll lose your shirt.

In the meantime, there's another style of innovation that anyone can pursue, at much less risk. It's not as sexy, and when you win the winnings may not be quite so big, but it has significant potential. That's incremental innovation: the sort of innovation that pursues the improvement of products, services, and processes that already exist.

I believe that innovation is the job of everyone in the company, but that's not to say that everyone should be working on the next big thing. Instead, everyone should be looking every day for ways that they can do what they do better, look at it in a new way, see new possibilities, new ideas, and new ways of measuring outcomes and applying what they've learned to the next version. In a well-run business, there should be a restless, ceaseless striving to learn constantly and do everything better. My experience, though, is that very few businesses take this approach. If innovation is a business goal, it is likely that one team -- or maybe even one person -- will be charged with being innovative, while everyone else is just supposed to do their job.

But imagine if incremental innovation was part of every worker's job description. What if you used the capacity for incremental innovation to guide your hiring? What if your managers were tasked with maximizing the innovative potential of their direct reports? You might be allowing a little bit of creative chaos to enter your business, it's true, but the bottom-line results could be incredible.