Innovation as breakthrough or as incremental change? Innovation through accretion? is a recent blog entry from PeterMe about some possibilities for innovation -

I read his post on the same day that I read a surprisingly glowing review of the new machine in the New York Times. And that review suggests that Microsoft has focused on what I thought appropriate – making the basic experience just work, instead of chasing after something “revolutionary.”

And it made me wonder if you can innovate through accretion – that you reach some threshold for each of your improvements, and the experience improves in some quantum way.

Certainly innovation is becoming commoditzed when every improvement (or even change, let alone improvement) in engineering or form factor or technology is hailed - by the PR flacks - as innovation. But Peter is making an interesting consideration - can small improvements (and maybe not the ones the PR goes on about) result in big changes. Or is that very interesting at all in a world of chaos theory - we don’t believe that big results have to come from big changes, do we? Accretion is really about the summing up of multiple changes; but somehow different than incremental, yes?

Some challenging thoughts; not sure I’ve captured them properly here. Anyone else wanna jump on this?

I think so, but I think we need to be looking back at the last generation of consoles to make the case.

It’s easy to see that the consoles successfully ‘crossed the chasm’ in the last generation. Incremental innovation brought CD/DVD storage, 3D graphics and network gameplay into the living room and created the ‘big change’ you suggest.

There’s no way that the XBOX 360 is offering a ‘quantum’ leap, so I’m curious to see what Sony and Nintendo have in store for us. Will the ‘Nintendo Revolution’ successfully reach out to the ‘rest of us’ with their clever ‘remote?’

in this situatiuon we must certainly consider the scale not the relation.

also, initially, just as design could mean different things to different people, innovation too can have the same problem. infact it is highly likely that there are two distinct understandings of innovative path, but you must choose between the two to be able to work because each relies on seperate, often unrelated philosophies:

1- gradual
2- essential

but there’s no question that innovation is more scale dependent than time and exercise dependent. meaning you can’t innovate unless you reach certain level of mastery and control over technology or theory & application. whether it is using existing technology/application (btw those who improved things along the way got their rewards, maybe even more than what they deserved-microsoft is a great example- can’t claim credit) or not, that imo is irrelevant, because then we should go and give credit to the first person who carved a wheel out of stone!

therefore i believe in the latter - the essential. the idea is to come up with the innovation that without it technology could not move forward any further. a missing link to future development. a milestone.

it would make whatever happened before just too weak and fragile to be important in scale. ofcourse i’m not talking about physical scale or scientific reputation here!

Read “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton M. Christensen. He established 3 different types of product innovation : Disruptive, Low End Disruptive and Sustaining Innovations.

It also matters what kind of innovation you are talking about. There is a distinction between product, process, organizational or marketing innovation.

A related comment from this months Wired, to the question “What’s the most overhyped tech trend right now?”

“There are plenty of tech trends that are clearly overhyped, but none so much as the idea that we need ‘the next big thing.’ We’re always looking out for what’s next and never taking the time to fix what’s broken. As soon as we notice that some technology hasn’t lived up to its hype, we become distracted by the next shiny thing. For once, it would be nice if the promises were kept, the bells rang, and the whistles whistled.”
Mike Masnick
President, Techdirt

As CG mentioned, there certainly doesn’t appear to be any revolutionary gaming innovations presented in the new XBOX. The wireless controls, media center capabilities, and improved graphics are only what we should expect in this generation of gaming console. The removable front covers are nice, but we’ve all seen the idea in other product categories for years, so that is difficult to consider truly innovative. ‘Innovations’ such as improved manufacturing & distribution, and the removable hard-drive (allowing multiple price points) are probably more significant to Microsoft than the end consumer. In Microsoft’s bid to gain market share, likely the most innovative aspect of the product is just that they’ve gotten to market first, and right before Christmas. If the product had reached the market at the same time as the Revolution and PS3, the device would likely not do as well as it probably will in the coming months.

In contrast to the XBOX, the Revolution is the most exciting and most innovative (read: quantum leap innovation) gaming product that the market has seen in a long time. Microsoft’s product may be “just right”, but then it is just right for average first-person shooter style gameplay. With the Revolition, Nintendo introduces a new style of gaming, something that is closer to real ‘play’. They are effectively saying that the existing style of gaming isn’t right to begin with. I’m a bit worried, however, that the new controllers may be too revolutionary, and alienate many players. Is the market ready for this, or are gamers too invested in the gaming status quo? The product is a quantum leap, but that doesn’t always translate to mean disruptive. The Revolution could save Nintendo, but it may very well break them for good.

In regards to incremental improvements, I do believe that they can set off revolutionary change. This is clear in the strategy of the fruit company that shall not be named. Incremental innovation is not as easy as it sounds, because it requires a discipline which many companies do not have. It is usually easier to introduce new (marketed as revolutionary) features to mask other shortcomings.

Finally, “just right” products are not necessarily a byproduct of incremental innovation. Innovating the wrong features only leads to feature creep, and a staid product category. Every now and then, the market needs a new player like Google/Nokia3210/MotorolaStarTac/NintendoRevolution to shake things up.

I disagree. And the reason goes to Steve’s original question.

The XBox 360 makes a little-talked about innovation that will be seen as a quantum leap imo: its built in Micro-Transaction/Virtual Market code. I don’t consider it small, but I don’t see much discussion about it. The announcement of this feature predates Sony’s announcement for their Sony Exchange service. And Sony’s service has them already talking about a free MMORPG that makes money only on virtual goods in the way the XBox 360 is already coded to work.

As nydesignguy correctly reminds us, there are different kinds of innovation. This one seems to fall somewhere between product and marketing. Maybe because it’s a big one traversing two areas masquerading as something small.

Small is relative.

This threatens to get a little circular. If it’s innovative, and they don’t want to use it, is it really innovative?

This threatens to get a little circular. If it’s innovative, and they don’t want to use it, is it really innovative?

Good point, and I struggle with that myself. But the acceptance or success in a market of an innovation is not really an indicator of its being or worth as an innovation. History is riddled with innovations that never succeeded or took years to get traction.

Anything new, by definition at least, is an innovation. But since innovation has taken off as a buzzword, do we now need to say that an innovation needs to be of a certain quality to be a true innovation? If an innovation falls below a certain quality are they relegated to the category of invention? If so, what are the success indicators? (and who is the jury?)

back to the questions…can small improvements result in big changes? certainly they can. Can we innovate through accretion? yes. Is accretion different than incremental? I don’t really see how. Is making something “just right” different than incremental innovation? Definitely. Sometimes making something just right means not innovating at all, but stripping down (i.e. Google)

It’s great that Peter points out that Microsoft has done good by making something just right, but it feels like his question of innovation and accretion is just playing off of a hot topic. The question that Peter might have asked instead is whether a product that is just right, even if it does not introduce anything new (what would normally be called a considerable ‘innovation’), can be considered an Innovation as a whole. Does it have to though? Couldn’t that just be good ‘design’.

Also, there are other factors such as price, time to market, marketing, etc…but your point is well taken.

Sometimes changes in scale result in changes in kind, sometimes not.

For instance, adding more sand to a beach just gives you a bigger beach. However adding more heat to an ice cube will eventually give you water.

here’s an article on knowledge based engineering and some opinions on incremental innovation, creativity, and streamlining.

Another point not to overlook is that in many situations, intelligent re-use of design knowledge elements can also reduce the need for big breakthroughs, by assisting (Kaizen style) incremental innovation that is constantly moving forward in small managed steps.

The key is in the creative thinking that drives the rules base: Using rules to create rapid variants within a “range” shouldn’t restrict innovation, it should enable a more sophisticated suite of designs overall. On the other hand, a strategy of using knowledge systems to “lock in” established practices can restrict innovation and worse, could actually “dumb down” the organization and restrict its ability to react to a changing context.

So the critical factors in the successful implementation of knowledge systems relate more to the strategic management of their creation, implementation and ongoing evolution than to the tactics of their application to specific projects, or even to the IT tools themselves.