The Missing Piece of the Innovation Puzzle

March 14, 2024 Jay Campbell

There is no shortage of material written about innovation. Much of it is aimed at senior leadership and the C-Suite; those focused on a top-down approach that is strategic in nature. Innovation topics covered typically include organizational vision, culture, investment strategies, and policies.

There are also numerous frameworks on innovation that target product designers and other professionals tasked with developing new solutions or creating new businesses. Agile development and design thinking are examples.

All these have their place, but they ignore the heart of most organizations. They don’t offer help to most managers and working professionals. That's an unfortunate oversight, because it excludes the majority of working professionals. It assumes that all the rest of us don't need to innovate.

The truth is everyone across an organization needs to be innovative. And everyone has the innate potential to make these kinds of contributions.

Disruptive Innovation Gets the Spotlight

If you read a book or watch a TED Talk on innovation, it will probably be about disruptive innovation—a change that had such oversized influence that it redefined an organization or remade an industry. You'll learn how a person like Steve Jobs or companies like Tesla, Uber, and Google were behind a breakthrough innovation that upended the business world and changed our lives. These are the types of people and companies that the media lionizes to hold our attention.

The truth is that the vast majority of innovation falls into the category of incremental innovation. Take the 3-D printer as an example. From one perspective, it is a disruptive innovation. From another perspective, it is the product of thousands of incremental innovations. In fact, most breakthrough innovations are the result of incremental innovations—the unheralded things people do on a daily basis.

A Closer Look at Incremental Innovation

Incremental innovation is a process in which change or improvement happens through small steps. It reveals itself as the cumulative effect it has on a product or solution, like the thousands of engineers who made improvements to the iPhone, or numerous individuals who made seemingly minor breakthroughs to get a rover onto the surface of Mars. These small steps imply less change and involve less risk. But they create a powerfully positive momentum toward a goal.

Incremental innovation takes many forms: how you interact with customers, how you communicate with your team, and changes to the systems and processes that you use, to name a few. You can make incremental innovations in any facet of life or work—anywhere there is a problem, gap, or opportunity to make an improvement.

Here are a few examples of incremental innovation:

  • Streamlining a process by adding or removing a step
  • Using social media in a new way to attract customers
  • Collaborating with others in a new way
  • Conducting polls during a webinar as a way to gather data
  • Switching from using an offline project tracking system to an online one
  • Trying out a new way to run a meeting or to avoid meetings
  • Combining two existing products to create something new

To fuel innovation, managers must create a safe space for their people to experiment. They must be intentional and show grace, be curious, and demonstrate proactivity as part of their day-to-day behaviors. Managers can destroy a team’s willingness to innovate or try something new with a critical comment or poorly chosen word. Innovation can be a fragile thing. It's much easier to break a glass than to make a glass.

Innovation Is for Everyone

Focusing only on senior leaders or product developers sidelines the majority of people from making valuable contributions to their teams and companies. Everyone has something useful to contribute. Innovation should be a regular occurrence in the workplace—one that leaders embrace and encourage.

Innovation can be a bit intimidating. Some degree of risk is always involved. And risk is usually accompanied by fear of change, fear of the unknown, and fear of losing control. But if you have the right framework, you can welcome it into the workplace—because innovation becomes your ally.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Jay Campbell is a co-creator of Blanchard’s new Fearless InnovationTM program.  Explore how Fearless InnovationTM can inspire the innovator inside all your people. Use this link to learn more.

About the Author

Jay Campbell

Dr. Jay Campbell is the Chief Product Officer for Blanchard, responsible for the development and management of the company’s portfolio of product offerings. He coordinates Blanchard’s research efforts on leadership topics, training effectiveness, and new content areas. Jay has degrees in Engineering and Economics from Vanderbilt University, an MBA from Boston College, and a Doctorate in Leadership and Organizational Change from the University of Southern California.

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