Radical innovation

Radical innovation is a very popular term in technology. Many dream of breakthrough innovation that puts them in a radically favorable market position with huge rewards. Even more favorable are the promises of consultants. However, successful radical innovation is very rarely observed.

Does it exist at all?

A brilliant description of a radical innovation was given by Prof. Gary Hamel in 1998:

‘Those who live by the sword get shot by those who don’t’

Hardly a phrase describes radical innovation so concisely. Obviously, radical innovation exists, at least in the case of bullets against swords. The question to investigate then is why is it so rare?

Let’s first look into what ‘radical’ means. Merriam Webster defines it as ‘very different from the usual or traditional, favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions‘. Now we may ask ourself how much is ‘very different’, and what are ‘extreme changes’. How far does an innovation have to deviate from the status quo that it’s referred to as radical?

And how quickly does it have to be far from the status quo? If we revisit some radical innovations, for example the bullets vs. the swords, the radical innovations have been developing for some time. What was missing was a breakthrough, either in the right application, or the right technology. Almost all technologies used in the Apple iPhone have already been around for a few years. Apple had even launched a touchscreen device more than ten years earlier: the Apple Newton. At that time, it was no success at all. This leads us to the first conclusion why radical innovation very seldom succeeds: the timing has to be right.

Another reason for being rare is the ‘extreme changes in existing views, habits…’. If you introduce a radical innovation, many people have to detach from existing views, and adopt new habits. Within the company, the radical innovation may question some existing processes, and also the owners of these processes, the currently powerful department managers. The power they have built up over the years is under pressure. Even though nobody admits this, the support for the new idea is limited, it may even be obstructed.

In a B2B environment, this is also true for your customers: your solution may seriously change the way they have to work, and question some of their established processes. In both cases, internal and external, the cost of the investment is quite visible to the stakeholders, whereas the reward by the new solution is not proven, particularly in a radically new solution.

Once there is a mismatch in timing that leads to slow adoption in the market , the spending piles up, and the revenues don’t. The business case looks worse every month, and management kills the innovation at the point where the solution was about to be adopted in the market, supported by the skeptical colleagues. That leaves the spot to someone who picks up the innovation and has a better understanding of the timing. Therefore, the inventors are very often not those who cash in on the idea. Examples are many: Kodak didn’t go for the digital camera they had invented, Apple used Xerox’ graphical user interface and mouse ideas, and Google got Altavista’s search engine right.

This leads to our second conclusion: good technology ideas are necessary for radical innovations, but not the only key to success: you need to have a deep understanding of the application, and have a superior understanding of the market to hit the right timing, or to properly convince the market that your innovation is providing enough value to invest into it.

What is your experience with radical innovation?

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