Disruptive Innovation or Incremental Changes?



Should you focus on disruptive innovation or incremental changes?

If you simply keep making small, incremental improvements, can you survive or thrive in the market?  According to Luke Williams, you can’t.

The revolution is now, and it’s time for “disruptive thinking.”

In the book, Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business, Luke Williarms argues that to survive and thrive in the market, you need to BE the disruptive change and be the only one who does what you do.

If You Only Make Incremental Changes, Your Path Gets Narrower and Narrower

You can’t whittle your way to enough value.

Without disruptive innovation, you can’t create enough value to stay in the game, or to leap frog ahead.  You slowly fall behind, as you try to keep up.

Williams writes:

Reluctant to spend a bunch of money modifying their existing operations so they can make new things that will compete with their old things, these companies become complacent and stop innovating. Big mistake. Because when a business makes only incremental changes, they find themselves on a path that gets narrower and narrower. Eventually, they reach the end of the path, and by then, their customers have forsaken them for a new offering that nobody saw coming. In cases where companies do take disruptive risks, it’s often because they’re backed into a corner and there’s no other choice.”

Focus on Game-Changing, Disruptive Innovation

Go for the bold.

Disruptive innovation is just like it sounds… It disrupts the current status quo.

Disruptive innovation changes the game.  You can use disruptive innovation to find or create a new position, as you change the game under other people’s feet.

Williams writes:

“Here’s the bottom line: Companies that try to differentiate themselves by focusing on incremental innovation instead of game-changing, disruptive innovation will differentiate themselves right out of business.  Companies simply cannot afford to wait until they get backed into a corner. “

Just Being “Different” is Not Enough

You can’t truly differentiate if all you have is a thin veneer of difference.

You need to go beyond the surface level.

True disruptive innovation cuts deep, by changing the experiences, the expectations, and what’s possible in new and creative ways.

Williams writes:

“The old mantra, ‘differentiate or die,’ is no longer relevant. In fact, I’d argue that, today, there’s actually too much differentiation going on. By steadfastly clinging to the ‘differentiate or die’ mantra, businesses large and small have made it extremely difficult for their customers (and prospective customers) to tell the difference between deep, meaningful change and shallow, superficial novelty. As a result, with an excess of similar offerings in the marketplace all claiming to be ‘different’ (which, theoretically, was supposed to add value to a company’s products or services), it’s nearly impossible for businesses to get their products noticed and command a premium for their efforts.”

Surprise the Market with Disruptive Thinking

Leave your competition in the dust through disruptive innovation.

You can use disruptive innovation to leap frog ahead of where the market is currently at.

Williams writes:

“I’m not talking about little tweaks here and there. I’m talking about a way of thinking that surprises the market again and again with exciting, unexpected solutions. A way of thinking that produces an unconventional strategy that leaves competitors scrambling to catch up. A way of thinking that turns consumer expectations upside down and takes an industry into its next generation. It’s what I call disruptive thinking.”

Be the Disruptive Change

Create the change you want to BE.

Disruptive innovation is your chance to challenge and change the status quo into the change you want to see in the world.

Williams writes:

“…disruptive thinking is not so much about how to spot and react to disruptive changes in technology and the marketplace; it’s about how to be the disruptive change. Being the disruptive change in an industry is
exactly the sort of thing that new start-ups and small-scale enterprises are best at. But, as you’ll soon see, it’s a way of thinking that can be learned and applied just as effectively by large organizations and industry incumbents—in fact, by anyone who’s willing to challenge the status quo wherever they are.”

“Be the Only One Who Does What You Do, or Die”

You need to be deeply unique, and that means making bold moves.

Disruptive innovation is often a by-product of boldly bringing your unique value to the world.

Williams writes:

“They need to be consistently making bold moves, even at the very peak of their success. So, instead of ‘differentiate or die,’ the real mantra should be ‘differentiate all you want, but figure out a way to be the only one who does what you do, or die.’ Okay, that’s a little cumbersome, but you get the point.”

If you want to rise and shine, Be the disruptive change.

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  1. Well, you can expand incrementally and not get narrower.

    It depends a lot on what kind of business you’re in. Major innovation to peas and potatoes? Not likely. New flavours of Coke? ummm . . . It disrupted Coke’s profits. Perhaps this doesn’t count as disruptive. Coke getting into alcohol, ummm

    He’d need a lot of evidence to convince me that big companies can be disruptive. It is almost always the new entrants that bring disruption.

    Consumers aren’t looking for bold ideas that are looking for stuff (or a service) that meets their desires.

    Here’s a disruptive thought in the self development blogosphere: we need to study failure as closely as we do success. Otherwise the behaviour we identify in the successful may be done by the failures and not lead to success. Studying only the successful can lead to delusion.

    • Great points for insight.

      The challenge isn’t whether you can expand incrementally. It’s whether incremental bets can prevent you from getting marginalized, priced out of market, or becoming irrelevant.

      It’s similar to Blue Ocean strategies. The circus industry was doing fine incremental expansion. Then Cirque du Soleil came along and changed the circus game, instead of competing on animals and trainers.

      I think the take away is, incremental bets can help you compete in the market, but not create new markets. And, disruptive innovation can change the market as you know it.

      It’s a given that it depends on what kind of business you’re in, but if I was in the pea business, I would find a way to get Spiderman or Iron Man on the package and win the kid market.

      In general, big companies fail at disruptive innovation if they try to use the same “machine” to run the business as they use to “change the business.” The pattern I see in big companies doing disruptive innovation well is they carve out incubation teams. They need the space to innovate and test before they integrate and scale. The iPod comes to mind.

      I like your point on studying failures. I was on a team for more than a decade that studied principles, patterns, and practices, which included anti-patterns. We found that while there were lots of ways to solve things, there was usually a short-critical set of failure paths to avoid. On the flip side, we also found that to know failure is not to know success. We also found that success is a by-product of the approach, which often includes effort, trial and error, and precision that is easy to over loook … but is the difference that makes the difference.

  2. I like the statement:

    A way of thinking that produces an unconventional strategy that leaves competitors scrambling to catch up.

    In a way, I think it forces others to come up with their own unconventional thinking, thus creating more innovation for the greater good. In my opinion, incremental changes is just as beneficial when a company decides to improve upon their own product.

    • Well put, and so true.

      There was a time when it was great to be a fast follower, but now it seems that it’s way better to be a fast leader.

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