When we think about innovation, we usually imagine something big, shiny, spectacular, and completely new. Something that can revolutionize the market and guarantee eternal supremacy for a company with one single move… almost like some kind of dreamed alien technology that can solve all our problems. However, innovation doesn’t have to be rocket science. Often, seemingly insignificant small ideas are the ones that bring the most impactful change. In fact, for an existing business, it is usually the little incremental turns that ensure success and can secure long-term prosperity.
From this article, you will learn:
- What is the practical difference between radical and incremental innovation?
- How can small innovations become a big success?
- What are the advantages of focusing on little ideas?
- What is necessary to use this hidden power of innovations in a business environment?
Between radical and incremental changes
Innovation – desired word
To summarize it as simply as possible, innovation is the action of creating a new product, technology, method, service, or even a business model – something new. However, not every innovation works the same, so let’s start by mentioning two opposite standards.
One is radical innovation, which stands for a kind of breakthrough, creating something completely new, redesigning the product, or building the next version on the ashes of an old one.
Incremental innovation, on the other hand, is a process of gradual improvement with small changes – by modifying an existing product with something fresh or by creatively using available options in an alternative way.
Revolution or evolution?
Radical innovation might be tempting, but don’t we say “you don’t need to reinvent the wheel”? I would say more: trying to do that would be doomed to failure. However, just think of all the amazing things that resulted from using the common wheel in innovative contexts. Could we even count them?
Of course, it doesn’t mean that every radical innovation is doomed to failure. A revolutionary product can become a great success and might have a dramatic impact on the market. However, no one can deny that concentrating only on the search for the big thing is simply riskier. What’s more, it can lead to missing some chances of making a real difference with smaller ideas.
Innovations have always been here, driving humanity forward and changing the world. But the truth is that most of those started with seemingly unattractive or even insignificant ideas – happening continuously, every single day, step by step. It’s like with the wheel – revolutions are important, but usually, it’s better to stick to safer and more reliable small innovations. Why? Let’s see how it works in practice.
3 stories of how small matters
- An innovative sparkle
Sometimes, one small change is enough. Let’s take seatbelts as an example. They have saved many lives, and it would be difficult to imagine a car without them. This small innovation revolutionized the safety of traveling by car and perfectly shows how little changes can become something significant. Since Volvo didn’t have to implement any dramatic changes in car construction or the way of driving, seatbelts weren’t a radical innovation. There was neither a risk of shaking the company’s financial condition nor a danger of losing customers if they didn’t like it. With seatbelts, a car was still a car, but beneath the surface, it became a trigger for an important transformation in the whole car industry.
- The power of innovation
Sometimes, great power can come from the accumulation of small ideas. Nowadays, most travelers probably can’t imagine carrying a heavy suitcase without wheels. But when we look closer at the history of suitcases, it turns out that wheels weren’t loved at first sight. It took twenty years and two more changes to detonate the revolution: different location of the wheels (turning the suitcase sideways) and adding a foldable handle (instead of an unstable strap). Together, all of these made pulling a suitcase more comfortable and won the hearts of travelers. None of these were radical changes challenging the basic construction and purpose of a suitcase. People could still use it the old way. But these small creative modifications became innovations, accumulated, and, in the end, brought a revolution to the market.
- Following the big brother
Small changes preserve big success. For example, many people see Apple as the perfect example of radical innovation. It is common knowledge that the release of the first iPhone caused a significant revolution in how people see and use their phones. But the truth is that Apple is also a master of incremental innovation.
With every model of their phone, Apple adds small but notable changes, such as new cameras, Touch ID, multitouch interface, Siri personal assistant, and many others. This makes users eagerly wait for the new release and take pride in having the latest model. It is difficult not to notice how such a business model based on regular small innovations is good for the company’s development.
Fighting the resistance to changes
Hating the good change
Have you ever thought, “Oh no, they changed it again!” when looking for a product on your favorite online shop or while working on your computer?
That’s natural. When you know a process well, you get used to it and don’t have to learn it again. After all, you visit a website, run an application, or use another product for a specific purpose, not to analyze or admire the new design. Moreover, after some time, even activities that are unintuitive or simply uncomfortable become something you do subconsciously. That’s why resistance to change is part of human nature, and you have to take it into account when you want to innovate.
Some fights can’t be won
Of course, sometimes you simply need to wait and give your clients a chance to become familiar with new things. It’s also worth to make some extra effort to educate users so that you help them understand and appreciate your idea. However, when innovating, you should always stay alert, observe, and be ready to pivot, which is obviously much easier when the changes are smaller. Users can become surprisingly creative when it comes to avoiding unwanted changes. When the modification is minor, they can find a way to work around it. But if it’s something more radical, they might also find an alternative product that will satisfy their needs. This means the more complicated and drastic the change is, the riskier it becomes for the business – also because it’s simply more difficult to take a step back.
Pivots happen to everybody
A good example of an obvious pivot is Windows 8 and its desktop interface. It was supposed to be an innovative proposal designed for touch-screen devices, but when it was presented, it turned out to be a great disappointment for users in general. After a gradual evolution of previous interfaces, Windows seemed to have forgotten that not everybody might be willing to learn a new interface from scratch.
The internet became full of advice on how to find and reincarnate the good old “Start” menu. However, the company has learned its lesson. With Windows 8.1, they returned to maintaining basic standards and turned to smaller innovations, which allowed them to further improve the experience and visual aspects of the operating system while keeping users’ preferences in mind.
Designing innovation for and with users
It’s all about user experience
As we can already see, users and their emotions are constantly at the center of the innovation process – whether we like it or not. Time taken to get to know your customers well, conduct research, make proper analysis, and test your ideas during and after the implementation process is never wasted. As we’ve already outlined, there’s always a thin line between making the experience better (by convincing users of innovation) and making it worse (by challenging them with too many overwhelming modifications). Therefore, it’s worth emphasizing that user feedback is a blessing, and ignoring it might become a recipe for disaster.
Your users can save you
A great example of how listening to users can help innovate a product is LEGO. Since the 1930s, many generations have played with LEGO at some point in their lives. However, this iconic company almost went bankrupt in 2003. At some point, LEGO was afraid that the boom of electronic games would push them off the market.
They decided to radically innovate and break with the tradition of physical brick-based construction play. Instead of creating another box of bricks, LEGO turned to the digital landscape. Luckily for the company, they discovered in time that customers didn’t want to replace bricks. Simply adding some digital experience to physical bricks proved to create a perfect balance between classic manual fun and modern entertainment.
Let users innovate with you
But that’s not the end of the LEGO story. The company has entered an incremental innovation path, where they walk side by side with their users. LEGO regularly engages children in their design process and even invites users to co-creation initiatives, building an active community all around the globe. Such an attitude allows them to flexibly experiment and innovate in a very supportive relationship with customers. What’s more, concentrating on small steps in close cooperation with users shows them that LEGO always cares about their experience. This perfectly builds precious customer loyalty, and the brand stands strong among competitors, even though LEGO’s patent expired a long time ago.
Learning from competition
You’re never alone
Concentrating on your customers and your own products is very important, but there’s one more crucial aspect of the business environment that you should always be aware of – other companies and the potential of their offers. An infamous example in this context is Nokia, which used to be an important mobile phone producer – until it refused to acknowledge that smartphones could become the future of the industry. After not taking the competition’s innovations seriously, Nokia was left behind, resulting in a decline in the company’s importance and loss of telecom market share.
Just one step ahead
Keeping a competitive advantage is essential for any business, and it’s an area where incremental innovation can be of great help. Just by sticking to the already mentioned examples, we can see that no innovation lasts forever, even the spectacular ones. LEGO had a special advantage for many years, but after all, their patent protection for the bricks system expired too. The iPhone became a pioneer, but soon had to start competing with many other companies and their smartphones.
In the end, it was a small innovation strategy that helped both brands maintain their position, differentiate themselves from other brands, and attract customers.
Getting out of the box
One of the opportunities that small innovations offer is drawing inspiration from existing solutions. Without the weight of the expectation of radical innovation, incremental changes can naturally add ready elements from different products and adapt them in a new perspective. We’ve already mentioned using wheels on a suitcase. Now let’s add three more: videos, QR codes, and retail sales. None of these sounds like rocket science, do they? But using videos as elements of clothing presentation in an online shop, providing QR codes for a quick start of conversation in an app (WhatsApp), or enabling easy online retail shopping from a steel distributor (Moris on Polish market) – all of these were innovative usages in their areas.
Making things better the best
Solving one real problem
Instead of searching for foggy ideas of game-changing products, little innovations allow us to better address one existing concern at a time. Thinking small supports concentrating on specific elements and generating more diverse and creative ideas for them. This approach also helps to extract real business or user problems and to quickly specify, evaluate, implement, and – if needed – easily improve generated answers. As a result, we get a chance to find the best possible solution for a certain aspect of our product and successively improve it as a whole.
Between creativity and patterns
The discipline of user experience perfectly demonstrates the delicate relationship between the natural desire for creativity of designers on one side and consistency and usability on the other. By concentrating on users’ needs, UX designers try to balance classic, well-known patterns and laws, new ways to make things easier, and business needs – all to ensure the success of a product. Finding a better way of doing things without losing what is already good for the user is the core of both UX design and incremental innovation.
That’s why the UX design way of thinking, methods, research, tests, and iterations are so easy to observe in the process of creating successful innovation.
Everybody wants an AI
The current pursuit of Artificial Intelligence is a perfect example of something that everybody wants and can be achieved easily, thanks to ChatGPT solutions. Every day, new AI integrations are announced, such as personalization of data visualization from Copilot (Microsoft), a dedicated shopping assistant from Zalando, or fixing spelling and grammar from Notion. Ignoring AI wouldn’t be wise, but following it blindly would be the same. Now is the time to ask yourself: how can AI contribute to your product and your users’ needs? Or maybe it can’t? One of the challenges of attractive concept of “quick wins” is their verification, and a small innovation attitude can be the best way to do it in little steps.
Thinking small, growing big
Innovations are essential for business and product development. The world changes, technology changes, competition changes, and lifestyle changes. Most importantly, clients’ needs change. To keep up with all of this, we need to innovate, improve our offerings, and look for new values.
But no innovation lasts forever, not even those successful examples or well-known radical innovations, inventions, or patents. They can lead to hyper-growth for some time, sometimes years, sometimes more, but never endlessly.
That’s where smaller innovations take over the stage. They allow us to improve and move forward without losing what’s already good. They help us work closer with users and their real problems without losing track of competitors. They remove the weight of expectation and allow us to benefit from what is already around us. They draw from UX design methods to keep a balance between creativity and stability. They carry less risk and give more control over the process and pivots. They allow us to react flexibly to the situation, market, and user feedback. Finally, they can accumulate and become something that will revolutionize your product, company, industry, or even the world.