The Innovation Gray Space

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Innovation is critical for all of us. It enables us to…. well, innovate. Innovation underlies change. It enables us to do new and different things, address new and different opportunities/markets, shift our strategies, products, markets.

A lot is written about innovation. Much of it focuses on disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovation probably overlaps, significantly, with invention. Disruptive innovation represents something that is brand new, disruptively so. Disruptive innovation may be radically new and different products, business models, processes.

For example, the invention of 3-D printing has driven the disruptive innovation of additive manufacturing–changing dramatically how things are manufactured. Businesses like Uber, WeWork, were disruptive, not only within their industries, but changed many other industries, as well.

We have an obsession with disruptive innovation, just as we do with invention. These represent the “New, New,” things we have imagined. But as you might expect, disruptive innovation is rare, and very difficult. It is typically preceded by many failures. But when properly done, or perhaps stumbled upon, it’s game changing.

Let’s go to the other end of the innovation spectrum, Incremental Innovation. Incremental innovation, builds on, or extends on the things we currently offer or do. For example, adding a new feature or capability to a product might expand the market or extend the life of a product. Adapting practices our competitors leverage, improving our sales processes/methodologies.

Much of incremental innovation is really improvement, how do we improve our abilities to reach and engage customers, how do we improve performance, how do we improve productivity? As sellers, much of what we sell, focuses on improvements our customers might achieve, for example improving their productivity, reducing cost, increasing revenue, improving customer satisfaction, improving quality.

Improvements and incremental innovation are the “bread and butter,” of everything we do within our own organizations and with our customers.

But there is a huge gray area in innovation. Something that offers us tremendous power to grow, change, transform; both within our own organizations and with our customers.

This gray area of innovation sits between inventions/disruptive innovation, and improvement/incremental innovation. Understanding and exploiting these represent huge opportunities for us and our customers in driving growth.

Some of this gray space innovation is actually familiar to us:

  • Addressing new markets/segments/industries. Customers we have never served but represent expansions of where we currently sell.
  • Changing our go-to-customer strategies. For example, moving from direct field sales to channel sales, or moving from direct field sales to inside sales. Or shifting, exclusively to an e-Buying model.

Much of the gray space innovation represent things that are neither new nor novel, but new to us or within our markets. For example, within complex B2B organizations, the adaptation of many of the approaches used by retailers or CPG manufacturers in consumer markets.

Gray space innovation represents a powerful, yet underestimated opportunity to drive grow. This type of innovation requires us to look/learn in non traditional places. We have to look outside our traditional markets, industries, solution offerings. We have to look in very different spaces, learning what leaders in those spaces do, adapting and tweaking some of those to what and how we do things within our markets.

We can even look in different functions, product development, manufacturing, or other functions, seeing if we can adapt some of their common practices to our go to customer strategies. For example, much of what we do in SaaS selling methodologies have been adapted from continuous flow/lean manufacturing processes.

The gray innovation space represents a huge, under exploited opportunity to adapt, change, and grow. To do this, we have to be alert, and systematically assess very different industries, offerings, disciplines. We can learn from Not-For-Profit, NGOs, the arts, even historical/biographical/fictional literature (think of how much in science fiction is actually being applied now).

As we innovate, we have to look at innovations across the spectrum of innovation possibility. But, invention/disruptive innovation is rare, improvement/incremental innovation is what we should already be doing every day. The gray space in innovation can be hugely promising.

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