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Posted by Tina Catling 24 July 2018 Innovation Consultancy

Incremental innovation is often downplayed as the poorer cousin of disruptive innovation, but it is in fact equally, if not more, important to organisations. While of course disruptive innovations have their place, labouring under the notion that every ideation session will yield a eureka-moment or greatest-thing-since-sliced-bread invention will leave you with a skewed sense of the value of innovation.

Rather than aiming for these disruptive innovations that come infrequently, many organisations would be better placed to invest their time, money and energy into fostering incremental innovation as part of their daily organisational culture. “How do we do that?” - we hear you cry. Here are two important things you should know about incremental innovation if you are going to make it a staple of your business strategy.


According to a Forbes article by Sunil Thomas, member of Forbes New York Business Council, the cost of innovation can often be prohibitive. As an antidote to this, adopting an incremental approach to innovation can yield more cost-effective results than always aiming for the big breakthroughs.

As just one example Thomas notes that ‘today’s cost to develop a successful medicine can exceed $2.6 billion, compared to $179 million in the 1970s.’ He notes that ‘while new CPG [consumer packaged goods] products don’t require as much capital, there’s still the opportunity cost of the investment, the labor hours and the marketing dollars spent to power that launch.’

Thomas sees incremental innovation as the solution, arguing that ‘a surefire way to mitigate risk and drive return on investment is by innovating through improvement.’ He adds: 

            ‘by pursuing smaller changes and using methods and tools familiar to discrete manufacturing, businesses can better position their new products for success, while also avoiding the common pitfalls that often plague new product development and rollout.’

This can be applied to a range of industries and is not just relevant to the CPG industry. Whatever your product or service, making incremental, manageable changes will ensure sustainability in the long term, without the risk and cost involved in disruptive innovation.


The terms startup and incremental may sound oxymoronic, but this is simply because we have become accustomed to discussing startups only in relation to disruption. The language we use to discuss startup culture is problematic in fostering this view, with terms like angel investment and venture capital leading us to think that all innovations need heavenly input or cowboy-like adventurism.

In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth, as contributor and co-founder of InList, Gideon Kimbrell, has argued. Kimbrell believes that even startups ‘should focus on short-term innovation, and have a diverse team that excels in bringing a product to market.’ While acknowledging that this requires startups to be agile and adaptable, Kimbrell argues that ‘some of the greatest successes happened using this approach to start out.’

Pointing to the some of the now best-known brands in the world, Kimbrell argues that all could be seen as incremental innovations that built on an existing idea. He explains: 

          ‘Twitter, for example, can be seen as a simplified blogging platform, with some added interactive capabilities. Facebook was not an entirely new technology, given the previous existence of MySpace; but was better. Google? It was just another search engine, among several, in its early days.’

This demonstrates that, while all these brands eventually disrupted and dominated their marketplace, the initial concept was not plucked from thin air. By remembering this when inside and outside forces alike are pushing for a big win, your organisation will be better able to maintain its incremental innovation course and deliver meaningful results.

Large or small, startup or established brand, incremental innovation can be employed to create viable ideas and solutions to existing problems that not only improve process and efficiency, but could turn out to be the next big breakthrough. Rather than always chasing the big wins, organisations would do well to reassess their approach to innovation and embrace the results that incremental innovation can bring.

As global innovation specialists we aim to help and encourage people and organizations to become more nimble, boosting their ability to generate ideas. We bring pace and focus to your innovation initiatives using our unique innovation techniques, which are constantly being developed by our professional licensees. If you’re interested in becoming a licensee for the think team, contact us here.

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