The Difference Is in the Details
Innovation is broadly defined as “the act of introducing something new." With so much room for interpretation, the real meaning is in the details.
There are two types of innovation: incremental and breakthrough. From an organizational perspective, they are equally important, as one fuels the other. Each, however, requires a distinct strategy and set of resources.
The best-run enterprises are always searching for ways to reduce inefficiency, lower costs, and improve quality within their existing systems, services, and products. This perpetual-improvement mindset fosters incremental innovation.
The power of incremental innovation lies in the aggregation of performance improvements over time. However, there’s more to it than straightforward, continuous improvement.
Ultimately, a process-driven approach to continual improvement (such as Six Sigma) is just the foundation on which we build genuine innovation. As we progress, our incremental steps become greater, the gap between new products and their predecessors becomes wider, and we’re able to decide between staying the course or introducing something truly radical.
Breakthrough innovation has the power to transform an entire business or market sector. Breakthroughs create unrealized value that could not have been conceived through existing models, patterns, and processes. Often, large-scale changes of behavior are necessary for the breakthrough to gain adoption and diffusion.
At its heart, breakthrough innovation is all about disruption. If you want a breakthrough, something needs to break.
While incremental innovation is focused on improving core and existing elements within the enterprise, breakthrough innovation takes place across the boundaries of what is known (and sometimes considered acceptable practice). It is the introduction of change into inherently stable systems.
The problem is that most business systems are designed to eliminate the kind of deviation that makes breakthrough innovation so desired — and so difficult to attain.