Radical vs. Incremental Innovation: The Right Approach For The Right Time

Radical vs. incremental innovation

Steve Jobs, the late CEO of Apple, famously said “It is really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. This has been interpreted by many as suggesting that there is no point in consulting with consumers about innovation.

Then there are others who say consumers should be the source of innovation. “The 3 Cs of modern creativity are community, crowdsourcing and co-creation,” according to John Wilkins of Naked Communications.

So who is right? Jobs or Wilkins?

They are both right, because it depends on the kind of innovation you are seeking.

Innovation can generally be categorized as either radical or incremental. Radical innovation is major innovations focused on new technologies, markets and business models. Incremental innovation refers to innovation processes that seek to improve existing systems and products to make them better, cheaper or faster.

These two kinds of innovation are, of course, interconnected. As the chart below shows, radical innovation typically follows incremental innovation. It delivers great leaps forward in terms of revenue or efficiency, whereas the tweaks offered by incremental innovation result in benefits that tend to be more modest. [1]

Radical vs. incremental innovation

The iPhone represented a kind of radical innovation. It reimagined the scope of what a “phone” could do and rewrote the rules for many markets, including photography, e-commerce, maps/navigation systems, television, movies and music. Steve Jobs was right to suggest the idea for an iPhone would never have come out of a focus group. But anyone who suggests that consumers can’t provide valuable input to fuel radical innovation would be wrong.

A hybrid car is an example of incremental innovation. It does not change the nature or capability of a car, it just adds a second source of power. That’s the kind of idea that could come from asking people for ideas to make cars more environmentally friendly.

Each type of innovation can benefit from input from consumers. Incremental innovation can be inspired by co-creation or consumer suggestions. But co-creation will not, however, lead to radical innovation. Radical innovation can be informed by research based on Jobs to be Done theory. Thus, it is important to be clear about the kind of innovation you are seeking before selecting the kind of research you do.

Jobs to Be Done

Jobs to be done (JTBD) is a theory, with attendant methodologies, that identifies opportunities for disruptive innovation by looking at what role or “job” a product does for a user. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen and coauthors articulated the JTBD concept like this: “Most companies segment their markets by customer demographics or product characteristics and differentiate their offerings by adding features and functions. But the consumer has a different view of the marketplace. He simply has a job to be done and is seeking to ‘hire’ the best product or service to do it.” [2]

Jobs to be done-driven research is about understanding what people are doing, and the role a product or offer could play for them. The learning from it is typically insight oriented. Let’s consider a simple example.

If you can, imagine or think back to around the year 2000. If you were at Niagara Falls, you would have seen people wandering around looking at maps, taking pictures with their camera, and listening to music on a portable CD player. You probably would have seen a payphone nearby, for those who perhaps wanted to call and make a restaurant reservation. These were all “jobs” people had. The clever person was the one who looked at what people were doing, paired it with a knowledge of what is possible from an engineering point of view, and decided what people needed was what we now know as an iPhone—a device that could help with all those jobs.

Using a job to be done approach obviously involves more than just observation and we believe that, during interviews, there is value in supplementing identifying jobs to be done with a focus on benefits to be had.

Customers “hire” a brand to perform a “job”, but the job they’re hiring for isn’t simply a functional transaction. They’re hiring for an emotional connection and an experience. We believe it is also important to identify what the benefits are, to inform marketing and product design.

Co-creation for Incremental Innovation

Co-creation involves inviting people not normally involved in product design to help generate ideas for new products and services. Those people could be customers, front line employees or members of our Innovation Forum. In our experience, the greater the number of people involved, the greater the odds are of generating some good ideas—hence we recommend crowd sourcing with large numbers of people. We have also found that, to take full advantage of the co-creation, it is valuable to engage people in evaluating other people’s ideas and offer suggestions to improve them.

That’s why we developed Idea Farm, an approach which delivers community-based, crowdsourced co-creation. Idea Farm is a four-step co-creation process in which people work together to generate ideas, pick the best, refine them and ultimately decide which ones are worth investing in.

Radical vs. incremental innovation

This multi-phased approach moves beyond a simple “suggestion box” method to ensure you take full advantage of people’s evaluative powers, as well as their ability to react to and improve other people’s ideas.

Why Co-creation Won’t Produce Radical Innovation

The reason that co-creation will not produce radical innovation is simple: people have a very hard time imagining things they have never seen before. That is why for example, in popular culture, people tend to think of extraterrestrials as looking like things we see here on earth: people, animals, insects or some combination thereof. Star Wars character Chewbacca, for instance, was inspired by director George Lucas’ Alaskan malamute. When asked to imagine something new, people tend to start with what they know already and then extrapolate from there.

A team of Scandinavian researchers did an experiment to see what kinds of innovation co-creation could produce. They concluded that, while co-creation was good for incremental innovation, it was not effective in producing radical innovation. In explaining their findings, they reasoned it this way:

“Radical solutions can often be considered unthinkable in advance, which can make radical solutions hard to imagine, but customers know a good idea when they see and use it. Customers create solutions based on their previous experiences of usage of different products or services, which makes it difficult to suggest solutions that are truly radical.” [3]

Let Your Innovation Needs Guide Your Research

There are, of course, many other research approaches that can fuel radical or incremental innovation, but these two serve to delineate the differences in where they fit in. To learn more, contact me. This article puts forth some of our thoughts on jobs to be done and benefits to be had. To better understand our approach to co-creation, click here. To see an example of lessons learned from research using our Innovation Forum click here.


[1] Chart from “Customer co-creation throughout the product life cycle” A Orcik, J Orcik, Z Anisic.
International Journal of Industrial Engineering and Management Vol 4 No 1 2013

[2] Finding the Right Job For Your Product, Clayton M. Christensen, Scott D. Anthony, Gerald Berstell and Denise Nitterhouse, MIT Sloan Management Review Spring 2007

[3] “Customer co-creation in service innovation: a matter of communication?” A. Gustafsson, P Kristensson, L. Witell, Journal of Service Management, Vol. 23 No.3 2012


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