Let's Hear it for Incremental Innovation

Let's Hear it for Incremental InnovationA journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, as the saying goes. The same is true for innovation. Yet much of the writing on innovation is about leaps, major technological breakthroughs that transform or disrupt markets. Isn’t it all about Apple and Edison? I would argue it isn’t. The bulk of progress and associated hard work on innovation is focused on incremental innovation, the small steps that over time take products and services to new levels. No Nobel prizes, but it’s not all about the glory.

Incremental innovation is occasionally dismissed as simple, straightforward continuous improvement. We are probably dealing with a spectrum at one end of which is a simple cost saving and at the other something like the original application of electricity. At some point on the spectrum we move from a Kaizen-type approach to genuine innovation, which will be incremental. As we move along, the steps become larger, the gap between new products and their predecessors becomes wider, until we get to the truly radical.

There are whole industries where innovation is almost exclusively incremental. A friend of mine works in the soft drinks industry and maintains that there have only been two major innovations in recent generations – artificial sweeteners and plastic packaging. Does it mean that soft drinks are an innovation-free zone? Of course not, just that all the successful innovation involves small steps that bring small improvements to consumers, who still have lots of choice and new stuff from which to choose each year.

Many other consumer goods categories are the same. Let’s take detergents, whether for clothes or dishes. The performance and product presentations are several levels above those of even fifteen years ago, let alone thirty. This has all been achieved using relatively small steps. Of course some steps are larger than others, for example the first gel cap or the first concentrated detergent; but they have all been intended to do the same job for the same target consumer in roughly the same way, getting better in small steps year by year.

Looking on as a outsider, it appears to be the same for many other industries, even ones as diverse as cars, major software products like ERP systems and white goods, to name but a few. The automotive industry is a good example in that there is the occasional radical leap, such as the introduction of hybrids; but the bulk of change and innovation consists of many small steps.

There are many reasons why incremental innovation dominates. First, it’s easier to conceive and execute than more radical opportunities. Second, it’s easier for consumers and customers to adopt. Third, it’s often just the way a particular industry or category operates. Finally, senior executives are much more comfortable dealing with new opportunities closer in to today’s business, where the abundance of reference points makes it easier to predict success or failure.

It’s all about competitive advantage, delivering better products and services to your customers and consumers. This may be a sweeping generalization, but it seems that the benefit superiority of most products and services in most industries is incremental. Success then depends on organizing innovation to reliably and continually produce products and services that are incrementally better than those of your competitors; ensuring you have a pipeline that delivers more every year.

This is not to decry the pursuit of radical options, but to recognize that in many industries they are a relatively rare event. Consequently, if you use a strategy tool like the 3 Horizons matrix, the split of innovation priorities is unlikely to be close to Google’s 70/20/10.  Even for a business as diverse, dynamic and leading edge as Google, most of their innovation would appear to be incremental, as judged by their 3 Horizons split.

Incremental innovation still means the deployment of all the weapons in the innovation arsenal. Companies must still align innovation with strategy; produce great ideas; invest in the right competencies; use resource efficiently; execute with excellence; support people in taking risks; and manage a strong portfolio.

Call me an innovation nerd if you like, but I find the whole approach to incremental innovation really interesting. It’s where the rubber of innovation management really hits the road. It’s the bulk of innovation effort and success, and as such is the biggest source of innovation’s contribution to business survival and growth. That’s why I’d like to see more written about managing a portfolio of incrementally innovative projects, rather than working on radical “magic bullets”. Let’s hear it for incremental innovation.

image credit: road to success image from bigstock

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Kevin McFarthingKevin McFarthing runs the Innovation Fixer consultancy, helping companies to improve the output and efficiency of their innovation, and to implement Open Innovation. He spent 17 years with Reckitt Benckiser in innovation leadership positions, and also has experience in life sciences.

Kevin McFarthing




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No Comments

  1. Paul Hobcraft on May 18, 2013 at 4:17 am

    So you now want to add “nerd” to your name- ok.

    Of course you are right, incremental often gets the bad rap but it is the essential stuff that pays the bills- keeps the lights on and engagement and connection with the brand, application, technology piece etc.

    The sneaky feeling is that incremental just keeps everyone gainfully employed also so “lets hear it for incremental” but no ‘radical’ stuff of cheering, shouting or back slapping, just keep it that ‘touch’ conservative.

    Thanks for the timely reminder

    • Kevin McFarthing on May 19, 2013 at 4:57 am

      Thanks Paul, you’re right, it’s not a case of “either/or”; it’s about recognizing the role and value of incremental innovation. I also think there’s tremendous potential in improving the approach companies take to this area.


  2. Ralph-Christian Ohr on May 19, 2013 at 8:26 am

    Great post Kevin – I definitely agree with your point.

    That’s the main reason why I “praise” for organizational ambidexterity. We need frameworks and tools, such as the “Three Horizons” or “Innovation Portfolio”, allowing for holistic approaches. Comprising incremental and radical Innovation is essential as almost all firms are required to feature a mix of initiatives. The actual proportion depends on e.g. industry, competitive position or firm size. As you mentioned, even high tech firms pursue about 50% incremental initiatives to secure ongoing business. However, it’s also imperative for them to seed a crtitcal mass of radical projcts to stay competitive in the future.

    • Kevin McFarthing on May 22, 2013 at 5:22 am

      Thanks, Ralph, it’s really a question of balance, which is why I’d like to see more written about how to improve our approaches to incremental innovation.

  3. T A Balasubramanian on June 26, 2013 at 2:18 am

    A timely reminder that ‘incrementalism” isn’t necessarily a necessary evil!

    I referred your feature to a LinkedIn forum discussion which is focused on India’s Tata Motors.


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