Incremental Vs. disruptive innovation

Updated: Jun 28, 2019


What's the difference between incremental and disruptive innovation? I'm asked this question more and more often.

As a picture is worth one thousand words, let's create it together.


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We can understand incremental innovation through the work of specialists and technicians. As hikers walking the long trail, experts spend their lives learning, refining and mastering the best practices in their field. Their work is essential, and many nations lack of a sufficient number of specialised workforce.

Disruptive innovation, on the other hand, is something instantaneous, and most likely to happen when we are not 'consciously' thinking about our product or service. Furthermore, I would suggest that the more we know about our product or service, the more difficult is for us to stumble upon disruptive innovation.

The fundamental differences between incremental and disruptive innovation are their starting point and their desired outcomes.

Knowledge is the primary source of incremental innovation. By knowing their product and the processes required to manufacture it, experts apply and adapt new technologies to improve efficiency and reducing errors and defects. Incremental innovation aspires to perfection.


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Creativity and not knowledge is the starting point for disruptive innovation. Let's define creativity the ability to shift our perception of one or more parts of our current strategy.

As you can see from the picture above, disruptive innovation is not about creating something better, faster or cheaper than our current product, but rather something different. It's worth highlighting here that this difference is not in the activities required to manufacture our product, but rather in the value that it creates.

Let me give you an example to clarify this point: The Coffee shop.

It took me a while before I was able to stop thinking about coffee as an Italian (mostly espresso). Eventually, though, I realised that I wasn't doing myself a favour and I dropped comparing.

Despite that, I was astonished the day I heard of a coffee shop that doesn't charge by consumption, but rather, by the time the customers spend in the premises. Is this still a coffee shop? For sure it is, nothing has changed but the perception of the value delivered to customers.

Someone in the coffee shop was able to shift the attention from the product offered, to the value generated for the typical client. Customers used the coffee shop not necessarily because they loved coffee, but rather because they needed a place to work.

We can define this an example of disruptive innovation because a 'short term office letting space in town' is not a better version of a coffee shop. Creativity was at work here!

Let me close saying that companies need both incremental and disruptive innovation.

While we are getting better at incremental innovation, I believe there is work to be done in becoming more creative and empathetic for our customers.

Let's work on this together.

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