About Incremental and Disruptive innovations

The other day while I was scrolling through my LinkedIn feed I read the following quote:

«The electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles» -Oren Harari

This idea is relevant in the process of creating products and services, specifically it exemplifies the “incremental” versus “disruptive” improvement concepts.

The term “creation” is clear but in the current world a lot of people just copy/duplicate someone else’s product/service and implement it in their country or region targeting it as “innovation”. This is wrong, and what they are merely doing is taking advantage of one of the economic features of globalization.

When you take an existing product/service and make it a little better, it’s an incremental innovation. A lot of companies and organizations tend to use this approach to keep their competitive advantage in the market. It tends to follow a systematic and structured way, minimizing the risks associated with a “disruptive idea”.

Incremental innovations often use the “Kaizen” and “PDCA” approach to create small and incremental improvements to products and services on a regular basis, with the goal of gradually improving performance, quality, and efficiency over time.

But these incremental improvements follow the idea chain of the active product/service, and the “innovative” output (if it exists) would be a serendipity process. There is one quote from Henry Ford that summarizes this idea: «If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses".

When your product/service radically changes the way people use or consume it, it’s a disruptive innovation. Disruptive products and services typically start small and grow rapidly, eventually displacing established players in the market, and those who don’t accomplish it often don’t tend to be as economic and process efficient as they thought and end up being eaten by others.

Being disruptive requires a willingness to take high risks, experiment, and challenge the status quo having the potential to transform industries or create new ones. That is why a lot of startups are seen as the counterculture of classic well established business and bigTechs, they adopt higher risks, move faster and surf the ripple effects of the techno-socio-economic changes around them.

None of these approaches is better than the other, they are just different approaches to take when you are creating a product or service and the decision of what you should choose depends on a lot of factors. But there is one thing that lies behind them, the first principles of the stuff you want to improve.

If you focus merely on the product/service, what you are going to do is waste all your energy and resources in the abstraction concept of the main problem behind it. But if you zoom out to see the bigger picture, focus on the root issue, understand the capabilities and constraints of why it is done in the way it is currently done, you’ll have a better chance of finding high impact solutions, no matter if it is an incremental or disruptive change.