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The Real Key to an Innovative Organization: Continuous Innovation

The Real Key to an Innovative Organization: Continuous Innovation

Stop Waiting for the “Big Idea!”

When you think about it, the model of disruptive innovation is the exception, not the rule.

Many leaders associate the term “innovation” with game-changing disruptions of existing industries or the creation of entirely new ones, like the way Apple’s iTunes helped create a whole new way to sell and distribute music.

Disruptive innovation is the concept of a big new idea dramatically and successfully changing the status quo. A new idea catches on like wildfire, wipes out the competition, and forever changes the landscape.

Innovative disruption is exciting, captivating, and naturally receives a lot of attention. The drama of David slaying Goliath has captured our collective imagination for generations, and we are naturally fascinated by the triumph of an underdog.

But these high-impact, dramatic innovations are relatively rare. Though worthy of pursuit, they’re difficult to achieve. Pushing your organization toward the big idea and chasing disruptive innovation too much can impede innovative efforts and success because a sole focus on the “big hit” drains resources and relies too much on a very rare occurrence actually happening.

There are only a few common stories of disruptive innovation. How many times have you heard this story of iTunes disrupting the music industry? It’s repeatable and familiar because it’s one of a handful of such modern examples of disruptive innovation.

That’s why we also advocate for the value of continuous innovation — a focus on gradual improvement and change, versus game-changing disruptions.

What Is Continuous Innovation?

Continuous innovation consists of smaller, more frequent innovations. These lead to smaller gains but more reliably advance a company over time. Consider the way Apple later added movies, television, and other media to iTunes.

Focusing on continuous innovation has significant advantages over concentrating solely on big, disruptive innovations.

Continuous innovation:

  • Strengthens an organization’s “innovation muscles.” Simply put, it builds an organization’s capacity to carry out innovation.
  • Moves you forward as an organization. By placing a series of smaller bets on continuous innovation, a business can more reliably grow market share, develop new products and services, and find ways to be more efficient.
  • Builds momentum toward disruptive innovation. Finally, continuous innovation can provide the stepping stones that lead — at least sometimes — to those industry-shaking disruptions.

Continuous innovation helps to ensure a steady stream of improvement that is the true key to a sustainable organization. Plus, continuous innovation isn’t without merit in the hope of someday achieving a disruptive innovation. A focus on continuous innovation builds momentum and organizational “innovation muscle” that increases the possibility of creating the next big thing.

To use a baseball analogy, we think of disruptive innovation as a home run. A home run is an admirable goal and a real possibility. However, if a baseball team focuses only on home runs, they are likely to lose the game.

A smarter approach is to create conditions that allow for frequent singles, doubles, or triples to occur. By focusing simply on getting on base, an organization not only achieves innovation more frequently but is also more assured of moving forward.

So what are the conditions for a realistic steady stream of innovation? We believe it all comes down to the right leadership, and we believe in creating a culture of innovation and developing innovative leaders who understand:

  • How to set and communicate clear innovation goals that are ambitious, yet achievable. Leadership that works towards the home run but also values, encourages, and rewards the base hits will build momentum and innovation success.
  • Innovation is a team effort. Contrary to what stories sometimes convey, innovation in organizations is almost never the result of a lone inventor — the dramatic home run by an all-star batter. Instead, innovation is a result of cross-functional teams cooperating, collaborating, and sharing a vision, participating in innovation no matter where they sit in the organization. Valuing, involving, and leading multiple perspectives are at the heart of successful innovative leadership.
  • Innovation does not happen in a silo. Instead, innovation happens when boundaries are spanned and collaboration occurs, connecting silos together. Boundary spanning creates a web to capture multiple innovative possibilities and turn possibility into reality.
  • How to balance the tension between managing the day-to-day business while driving for improvement and reinvention. Navigating the polarities of existing business and new ideas is both the art and practice of successful leadership of continuous innovation.

Theories come and go. Fantastic glory comes infrequently and quickly fades. What remains constant is the importance and value of great leadership.

Great leadership is what sustains continuous innovation, which will help win the game.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Help your organization focus on continuous innovation with a customized learning journey for your leaders using our research-backed modules. Available leadership topics include Boundary Spanning Leadership, Influence & Selling Your Ideas, Innovation Leadership, Leading Through Change & Disruption, Learning Agility, and more.


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December 14, 2020
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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