Disruptive vs incremental—Is innovation relative?

Change doesn’t always have to be huge, though the type of change that makes headlines often is exactly that—typically what we’d call disruptive innovation. Clayton Christensen, who coined the term, defines it as “disrupting an existing market, industry, or technology to produce something new and more efficient and worthwhile. It is at once destructive and creative.”

Inspiring as that sounds, an IT department that’s already busy keeping the lights on might not have the bandwidth for disruption. The alternative? Incremental innovation—making a series of small, predictable improvements adding up to significant changes, but without the associated risks.

Disruptive Innovation

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When you hear the term “innovation,” what comes to mind is probably associated with disruptive innovation—after all, the ideas that make a big splash are the ones that stick with us, whether it’s the Smart Car or SpaceX. At the base level, to innovate disruptively means to introduce a new idea, which is unexpected by the recipients—smartphones may have already existed when the iPhone first debuted, but concepts like the large touch-screen and the app store disrupted the market! Some time later, Android OS disrupted again, when they brought an open OS to the mobile industry.

Incremental Innovation

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Incremental innovation is a little more cautious—it works with existing ideas and infrastructure to make slight tweaks and improvements without upending the establishment. Incremental innovation isn’t something you always notice right away, but most of the innovation that we experience every day is incremental—software cycles are an example of how we’re affected by that in the workplace. To follow the smartphone motif, an example of incremental innovation is what you see between each iteration of Android OS—from Alpha (back in 2007) all the way down to Android Lollipop today.

Innovation is relative

In your workplace, a switch from Outlook to Gmail may be seen as disruptive, but in another it might be seen as incremental! It’s all about the context of the innovation, and the adaptability of your organization—any change that requires you to use a new method, idea, product, etc— that’s innovation! A change is a change, no matter how small.

But be prepared for the effects of disruptive innovation. Slow adopters are inevitable. If your situation calls for a serious pivot in your work process, it may be a good idea to put together a communication strategy prior to starting the project. Brian Miller, CIO at Davenport University, has some great thoughts about this in his post, Which comes first? Communication planning or development?

How does your team introduce innovation to your organization?

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About

Matt Vollmar has been working in IT for about 20 years, doing everything from website creation to enterprise storage performance consulting. Eventually, through some strategic arm twisting from his boss, Matt tried out team leadership and discovered that it is actually a core passion for him! Before coming to Newmind, Matt worked as an Account Delivery Manager at Hewlett-Packard from his basement. Now Matt enjoys leading in the creative and innovative environment at Newmind AND sees the sunshine more than once a week.