Improvement is not innovation


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Improvement and innovation – in today’s world the two terms are more and more used interchangably. It’s a trend that’s been promoted the business press; by companies large and small; and even by the myriad of ‘innovation consultants’ out there today.  But the problem with equating improvement with innovation is that does a disservice to the truly successful innovative strategies used by some of the leading firms today.

Improvement is not innovation. And here’s why.

First, an improvement that only meets the market standard or reacts to innovation that your competitors have already introduced into the market is NOT innovation. It’s playing catch-up.

Second, introducing an improvement that does not significantly differentiate you from your competitors is NOT innovation. It’s simply just an improvement – evolutionary not revolutionary.

And finally, introducing improvement that may give you a competitive advantage but can be easily emulated by your competitors is NOT innovation. It’s just a temporary advantage.

So what is innovation? Is it mutually exclusive from improvement? Innovation does include improvement – it has to, but improvement is but a small part. Innovation is much more. It’s about creating that breakaway differentiation; it’s about creating economic returns; and in the end, it’s about creating ‘an outcome competitors are either unable or unwilling to match.’

When Southwest Airlines changed the existing airline model by focusing on point-to-point round-trip flights to avoid the capacity inefficiencies of the hub-and-spoke model used by the rest of the industry, and then monetized that new model into becoming the industry profit leader, that was innovation. When Jet-Blue tried to emulate that same model years later, it was a good business strategy, but not innovation.

When Sony introduced the first Walkman in the late 1970s, they changed the music listening habits of millions of people worldwide and became the industry leader making hundreds of millions of dollars in the process, that was innovation. When competitors raced to match their offering (without the resulting outcome of huge profits), it was improvement and a good product strategy, but it was not innovation.

Bestselling author Geoffrey Moore perhaps says it best in his highly influential book Dealing with Darwin.

“Focusing on our chosen innovation…[so that] we will so outperform our competitors that prospective customers and partners will cease to entertain them as legitimate alternatives.”

Now that’s innovation!

Here’s the takeaway: It’s easy to confuse improvement with innovation. But only innovation creates an outcome so unique that competitors are either unable or unwilling to match your offering.


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Republished with author's permission from original post.

Patrick Lefler
Patrick Lefler is the founder of The Spruance Group -- a management consultancy that helps growing companies grow faster by providing unique value at the product level: specifically product marketing, pricing, and innovation. He is a former Marine Corps officer; a graduate of both Annapolis and The Wharton School, and has over twenty years of industry expertise.


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