LED light bulb is a revolution in the lighting industry. In the past, incandescent and CFL bulbs also brought revolutions. Similarly, digital camera, iPod, electric vehicle, word processor software, personal computer, and many others are revolutionary innovations. But did they show up all of a sudden as radical Innovation? For sure, No. Invariably, they surfaced as primitive solutions, inferior alternatives. But they grew through incremental steps and succeeded in becoming far superior alternatives to their predecessors—turning them into radical innovations. In retrospect, all products evolve through Incremental innovation, leading to maturity and reinvention from the change of technology core. Despite inferior beginning, those new waves grow as radical or revolutionary innovations. They also cause creative destruction, often taking the shape of Disruptive innovation. Hence, innovation evolution leading to revolution is the inherent unfolding characteristic of the innovation lifecycle.
As if innovators are in a wonderland. They start climbing a mountain with incremental steps. Before reaching the peak, some of them envision the formation of a new mountain that could be even taller than the first one. Hence, a few take radical steps to climb the newly forming mountain. But that requires leaping down and starting again, climbing through incremental steps, reaching a higher peak. This is all about innovation evolution leading to revolution. This evolution process is driven by empathy, Passion for Perfection, scientific discoveries and technological inventions, and most importantly, competition. Along the pathway, innovation evolution keeps unfolding better means in getting our jobs done better.
In addition to successes like the rise of Startups to mega-corporations, this evolution process also destroys many giants. Such radical or revolutionary effect of innovation unfolds due to the reinvention and rise of creative destruction waves. This effect is the underlying factor of the migration of innovations across firms, industries, and countries.
Defining innovation evolution:
Innovation evolution appears to be a benign process of continuous and incremental advancement. This is the metamorphosis phase. But it also has a phase of recreation. In pursuit of finding the following growth path, innovators embark on unfolding radical and discontinuous leaps to completely novel offerings, opening up new business and growth trajectories of the innovations. This is about the revolutionary or radical phase of innovation evolution.
At the maturity of the current technology core, innovators pursue recreation by changing the matured ones with emerging technologies. However, despite the potential, the reinvention appears in primitive form, far inferior to matured ones. Hence, this characteristic of innovation evolution resembles leaping down from the peak of an existing mountain and starting climbing the next one, which will likely be taller.
The act of leaping down and start climbing the next mountain creates discontinuity. It often stresses the limitations of management decision-making and causes friction between two groups, thoughts, or management practices. As the next mountain has not formed yet, it is unclear how taller it would be. Hence, instead of sure profit stemming from the proven path, it ventures into new territory, posing uncertainty and risks—often incurring a loss. By the way, the mountain does not grow itself. The underlying technology core determines the innovators’ ability to keep helping the mountain grow, desirably taller than the previous one.
Furthermore, it demands a new set of skills to distill the potential. Besides, the reinvention wave does not always grow taller than the matured ones. For example, fuel cell-based automobile reinvention could not grow as a better alternative to gasoline.
Competing alternatives increase the complexity:
Furthermore, before the next mountain grows taller than the current one, the mountain after it starts growing, leading to competition between multiple mountains to be taller than the matured ones. For example, in the 1990s, plasma display was growing to be a better alternative to CRT. But before it took over, LCD started growing fast, leading to being far taller than both CRT and plasma.
Managing innovation evolution leading to revolution:
For the sake of having greater clarity, let’s divide innovation evolution into two parts: (i) incremental evolution during the metamorphosis phase and (ii) recreation out of reinvention for creating a radical or revolutionary effect. Hence, there are two phases: (i) metamorphosis and (ii) reinvention.
During the metamorphosis phase, management faces the challenge of exploiting the current technology core, incremental innovation requirement of customers, and existing complementary assets. In the metamorphosis phase, management focuses on optimization and exploitation of existing businesses and prolonging the trajectories of profit-making products. Hence, the passion for perfection focuses on producing incremental ideas. Due to the proven path, evolutionary innovators during the metamorphosis phase can be highly successful with limited risk – as, in large part, innovation returns come from incremental evolution.
On the other hand, revolutionary innovation explores reinvention opportunities for transforming the market by destroying the existing system or process and replacing it with something entirely new. Hence, contrary to listening to customers, revolutionary ideas are mainly fed by visionary foresight. It faces inherent high uncertainty as it addresses a future that doesn’t exist yet, but will likely emerge through the metamorphosis of the reinvention wave. Due to loss-making beginning and high uncertainty of recreation, management faces the challenge of taking high-risk investment decisions. Hence, management faces a decision Dilemma—whether the proposed recreated products, processes, or systems will result in transformation.
Concerning customer orientation, evolutionary innovation focuses on orientation towards today’s requirements of customers what they are asking for. On the other hand, revolutionary innovation focuses on requirements that customers are not aware of, but they will likely be asking tomorrow. Hence, as opposed to exploitation, for pursuing radical innovation, management faces the challenge of exploring and validating future prospects.
Radical innovations will be serving customers differently: technology highly matters
There is a common perception that innovation evolution through incremental advancement targets today’s customers. And radical innovations will be serving customers of tomorrow. Interestingly, in many cases, today’s customers will be tomorrow’s customers. They will be the same customers, but radical innovations will allow them to serve their purposes differently. Surprisingly, they do not know alternate ways to serve their purposes better. Hence, they cannot tell us their future requirements. For this reason, innovators pursuing radical innovations out of reinvention must envision customer requirements. Customers will only know better ways to get their jobs done upon experiencing radical or revolutionary innovation.
For example, in the 1970s, no photographer was asking for digital cameras. But, today, the same customers do not ask for film cameras. The challenge of radical innovations is to think on behalf of customers. Of course, empathy or design thinking plays a vital role in envisioning. But if technology around which alternative means are perceived does not grow and reach a state of serving the purpose better, innovators suffer from failure.
Furthermore, the alternative technology core is not proven. Innovators conceive radical alternatives at an embryonic state. Hence, technology uncertainty highly matters. Therefore, technology management should be at the center in managing radical innovations. For this reason, in isolation of technology advancement, creativity, empathy, design thinking, and many other commonly known means of innovation fail to deliver revolutionary innovation.
For example, if technology progression did not support having several million pixels on a low-cost sensor, no amount of creativity, marketing effort, or management practice could have made a digital camera a revolutionary innovation.
Need for ambidexterity:
In the vicinity of the intersection of two waves, mature and reinvention ones, innovators face the challenge of looking after both of them. But they require entirely different sets of perception, performance indicators, and management practices. Furthermore, despite the hype, not always reinvention waves grow as creative destruction forces. If not managed well, organizations suffer the reality that the existing business dies, the novel idea dies, or both. Hence, organizations must have the capability of developing new business (exploration) and running the current business (exploitation) in parallel. Therefore, in addition to the exploration for pursuing radical innovations, we should also pay attention to exploiting existing mature products through incremental innovation. But the challenge is to have perfect balance. Unfortunately, in many cases, high-performing firms fail to maintain balance. Starting from, Kodak, RCA, DEC, to GE, many examples were unable to have a delicate balance.
Revolutionary innovation succeeds with innovation evolution out of incremental progression:
Perpetually, prospective revolutionary innovations from the reinvention of existing products show up in primitive form. But they have some unique characteristics, which mature products cannot show. For example, despite primitiveness in the 1980s, the digital camera did not need film. Although professional photographers did not find any use of primitive digital cameras in the 1980s, defense and space contractors found them very useful. As the image is formed in electronic form, satellite imaging platforms found it useful for real-time transmission of images as a radio signal. Similarly, defense contractors found it suitable for real-time target detection and tracking through images; these customers who benefit from unique attributes form the innovator category of customers.
But the innovator segment is small. They do not produce enough revenue to make it a growing business. Of course, reinvention can do things nothing else has been able to do before. But they serve the purpose of the majority of customers in a poorer way, and they are far more expensive. Hence, to increase adoption, innovators face the challenge of making it better and cheaper. As opposed to subsidies, they need ideas out of technology possibilities. The focus should be more on technology advancement, engineering, features, and functions. By the way, if the underlying technology does not keep improving, no amount of interaction with the user will turn that primitive emergence into radical or revolutionary innovation.
Technology advancement is a must for crossing the chasm and reaching the mass market:
As explained, radical innovation attracts early adopters due to its novelty. But for crossing the chasm and capturing the mass market, the focus should be on offering a better alternative in helping conventional job done better. Despite the importance of design, the advancement of technology core is vital for addressing customer needs and user experience. For example, no amount of empathy or design thinking could have made Motorola’s Dynatec a radical innovation if battery and microelectronics technologies had not improved.
Of course, the primitive emergence of radical innovation keeps climbing the mountain through steady incremental steps. But leveraging insights gained by employing customer-centered methodologies are not good enough. Often, it demands a steady flow of scientific knowledge for technological advancement. The cumulative effect of the needed flow of scientific knowledge for making the reinvention wave revolutionary or radical innovation may lead to winning Nobel Prizes. For example, the need for continued refinement of Transistor technology for making Sony’s radio and tv reinventions revolutionary innovation, one of the team members won Nobel Prize. Similarly, the demand for steady battery technology advancement or making electric vehicles has led to winning the Nobel prize by Akira Yoshino.
Evolutionary innovation vs revolutionary innovation: Which one is more important?
Frankly speaking, both of them are equally important. Of course, some people may say that non-linear or revolutionary innovations make the most significant advances. Despite their importance, all radical or revolutionary innovations surface in primitive form. Incremental advancement is the only option for them to grow as revolutionary innovations. On the other hand, in the absence of radical step of reinvention, evolutionary innovations get stuck at the local maxima. Hence, evolutionary innovations and radical innovations are equally important.
For sustaining innovation success, the answer is not either evolution or revolution. Instead, organizations should have a balanced approach. Hence, in addition to exploitation, innovators should have dedicated activities to keep exploring, discovering, filtering, and validating findings and ideas for jumping onto reinvention mission at the right time. Both premature and late responses to the radical innovation wave are harmful. Furthermore, in the end, the underlying technology core determines the fate of both evolutionary and revolutionary innovations. Unfortunately, technology possibilities are fraught with pervasive uncertainties. On the other hand, customer preference, empathy, and design thinking highly matter for exploiting technology possibilities. Hence, there should be a balanced approach to derive benefits from innovation, customer inputs, and technology advancement.
Evolution is continuous and incremental innovations of a firm’s existing business. Evolutionary innovation is about gradually advancing existing products, processes, or systems. On the other hand, we can describe revolution as radical and discontinuous leaps to completely novel offerings; hence, it opens up new business and growth trajectories. Therefore, radical or revolutionary innovation refers to pursuing the reinvention of mature products and turning them into creative destruction through the evolutionary innovation approach of incremental advancement. Both are equally important in the debate of evolutionary vs. revolutionary innovation. Hence, a balanced approach is needed. Due to the high deviation in characteristics of pursuing exploitation and exploration, top management should have appropriate management practices to host both of them in a balanced manner.
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