Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

How to create a culture of innovation

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Disruptive and incremental innovations: How to ascend the ladders and avoid the snakes

Guest post by Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant

Current realities are harsh. Whereas once it was enough to bring out slow incremental improvements, to give time to trial new products, services and ideas and test the market, innovations now need to be rapid and radical. And the competition is fierce.


On the flipside of that, the good news is that small players now have the opportunity to enter a once exclusive domain. Agile systems and accessible entry points are now disrupting the market, giving anyone at almost any level the chance to potentially compete on a global stage. Clayton Christensen, with Harvard Business School and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, identifies this as a significant new era in which small nimble players can leverage simple and inexpensive ideas and products at the bottom of the market.

Yet rapid innovation can be risky. It involves a huge paradigm shift. Like a game of snakes and ladders, it might be possible to jump ahead with a great new idea, but it can be just as easy to make a wrong move and find yourself back at square one. There are both great opportunities and great risks, fast winners, and major losers.

Every time a disruptive new innovation comes through, the bar is raised. When there was a switch to mid-engine cars in Formula One racing, for example, a new benchmark was set. Then the introduction of aerofoils changed the game yet again. The switch from typewriter to computer and from snail mail to email are two more examples of breakthrough innovations that radically changed the way we operate. These are all important for progress, but it can be challenging to keep up.

So how do you handle this apparent dilemma of choice between incremental and breakthrough innovations? Put simply, we need both. We need the slow incremental innovations that will allow us to develop ideas carefully for the long term, along with the breakthrough disruptive innovations that will enable survival in the short term. We need ambidextrous organizations that can adapt to meeting both short term and long term needs. We need leaders who can manage both the level of support, and ensure innovation is maintained over the long term.

And how is it possible to become more ambidextrous to best support sustainable innovation? Try embracing these paradoxes to more effectively adapt to the challenges:

  • Freedom + Control: Provide both the freedom for people to explore more radical breakthrough ideas, along with the discipline and guidance needed for incremental change.
  • Openness + Focus: Provide both the diversity and openness to people and ideas that can ignite breakthrough ideas along with the opportunity for focus that is needed for incremental innovation.
  • Engagement + Individualism: Give individuals the opportunity to come together to brainstorm and build on wild ideas while also respecting the individual time needed to work ideas through to practical solutions.
  • Flexibility + Stability: Ensure there is the flexibility for people in the organization to explore different paths and solutions to assist with identifying the best breakthrough ideas, but also ensure there is a stable foundation for continued work on single solutions.

You will find that by successfully navigating these innovation paradoxes it is possible to create a sustainable innovation culture – no matter what the challenges ahead!

Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant are the authors of The Innovation Race: How to Change a Culture to Change the Game. As the Directors of Tirian International Consultancy they help to create innovation cultures for a range of international organisations (from Fortune 500 companies through to NFPs). The Grants are top-ranking keynote speakers and business facilitators, and Gaia is an HD researcher and guest lecturer at Sydney University Business School.

The Product Management Perspective: Innovation is at the core of product management. And yet, let’s be honest…we haven’t always done the best job of being the innovators within the company. The good news is we’re seeing a positive shift in the leadership of product management within organizations. With new theories gaining a foothold in product organizations, the future is bright for Product Management. I look forward to collaborating with you in 2017.

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