Innovation : Don’t Mistake Incremental and Disruptive!



Which company wouldn’t want to be innovative? Not many. Yet I have had numerous misunderstandings when talking to my clients about it, whether they worked for middle size or big companies.

We usually start talking about innovation as if we all agreed on the same definition until we realize… we are not. Do not read the following paragraph and say out loud in a few words what innovation is for you. 

Come one, play along! Do it, just for the sake of the exercise. 


The official definition is to implement something new. As simple as that. 

But the term innovation comes from latin innovare which means « come back to, renew” and the verb novare from novus, means « change », « new ». The prefix in-, indicates a movement from the inside. So innovation can mean to renew, to change from the inside and could also imply improvements. 


Was it the definition YOU had in mind? I bet it has a broader meaning than you thought it had.


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There are tons of in-depth articles about innovation but to simplify, we can talk about two main ways to see innovation: Disruptive innovation and incremental innovation. On the one hand you have what is radically changing the landscape: an invention, a new way of approaching business and on the other hand, the minor changes, the constant research of improvement.

How is disruptive innovation a game-changer?


This is the innovation we constantly hear about. The new technologies, the brand new approaches, the revolutionary products and business models. We can talk about blockchain technology, Tesla cars, the e-commerce revolution, neo-banks, or even the way we now take taxis (or don’t anymore).


Disruptive innovation is appealing, surprising and usually changes the way we are going to act. Yet, it is also incredibly hard and risky to go for it.


It requires that your (well-established) company acts, recreates, buys or builds some kind of start-up. It might require assembling a lab, a full time innovative team (which is NOT working on other projects), resources, an innovative strategic goal and much more. All of these elements are often overlooked.


I always tell my clients : “Everything is possible, but bigger rewards have a price.  We just have to make a choice.” Start-ups are very agile and ONLY think of one innovative product whereas big companies have performance goals to meet and can’t break the balance they have carefully built over the years. 


Giving 15-30% more time to your team to find creative ideas on different projects is beneficial and is part of the most important project management skills. However, it is not enough if your goals are to be disruptive. They might have excellent ideas, but bigger resources and a new organization will have to be put in place later on anyways.

Now, there is something else, less appealing and way more affordable that you and your team can do, with or without disruptive innovation. 



This is called incremental innovation.


To begin with, let’s say that what I have just described before doesn’t sound like something your company is planning to do at the moment (or wouldn’t want to invest in). You can go, whatever your situation is, for incremental innovation. This means constantly improving already existing products, services, processes, methods, or even the organization itself. This requires a growth mindset and a bit of creativity from collaborators.


But if every employee, every manager, improves daily tasks, small features on products and services, or rethinks bits of the organization with their creativity, it creates a synergy that makes a company really innovative. That’s simple.

Now, simple doesn’t mean easy. Where you will struggle is usually at the organizational level. You suggest an idea, some agree, some don’t (usually your boss), and nothing happens. Heavy processes tend to crush creativity and this is definitely not what you want for your team. 


The good news is every company and leader can work on some things to observe tremendous results : working on their culture, on how processes can allow more creativity, on the quality of management and giving more responsibilities to each actor to improve in their own field, will not only bring innovation but also help each person to give more meaning to their work, by having recognition, responsibilities, freedom to share ideas and actually see the changes they will trigger. 


This will help the company to have better communication in its team, therefore attracting more talents but also having better processes (with less friction for example), for their clients to buy or to return articles. Nevertheless, it seems way too easy to be efficient. We prefer to throw large amounts of money and to shout from the rooftops that we are going to disrupt everything rather than solving already existing problems, one bit at a time. 


What can you do then ? 


Today, we overemphasize disruptive innovation and underestimate incremental innovation in the corporate world, also because of the media. It is more appealing to say that Apple has a new revolutionary chip for their computer than to say that Allbirds has an interesting return process for its shoes and clearly improved it over the years.

Each company has to make choices for their strategy, and they can have a disruptive innovative strategy and/or choose to push incremental innovation.

So, if you are a head of innovation, part of a lab, a manager, a HR or that you fancy yourself an intrapreneur and were asked to be more innovative, don’t fool yourself. Approach the problem or goal with this sentence in mind : there is innovation and Innovation. Actually, I urge you to dig deeper because there are actually more kinds of innovations.
Your understanding of the context will help you get the best results for your team and company. It all depends on what you want, why you (or n+1) think you want it, and having to align goals with the means in place. All these are noticeable qualities of great leadership.


In any case, if you have a question about it, please message me, I would love to give you free quality advice with no strings attached.