Stop Waiting for the "Big Idea!"

Disruptive innovation is the concept of new ideas 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.

Stories of disruptive ideas fuel our need for hope and the dream of fame and fortune.

Yet recent research by the Smith Brain Trust challenges the excessive attention given to disruptive innovation as a goal and model. The research clearly shows that disruptive innovation is a rare occurrence and not as predictable as scholars have stated. In essence, the Smith Brain Trust research is interrupting the model of disruptive innovation and giving business leaders reason to rethink how they approach innovation.

The finding from the research is reinforced by the fact that there are only a few common stories of disruptive innovation. How many times have you heard the story of iTunes disrupting the music industry? The iTunes story is repeatable and familiar because it is one of the few modern stories of disruptive innovation there is to tell.

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

We subscribe to the philosophy that disruptive innovation is an admirable aspiration and a real possibility. But we also believe that a singular obsession with disruptive innovation can impede an organization’s innovative efforts and success. A sole focus on the “big hit” drains resources and, as the new research indicates, is perhaps hoping a bit too much for a very rare occurrence to happen.

That’s why we also advocate for the value of continuous innovation — a focus on gradual improvement and change. 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 homerun. A homerun is an admirable goal and a real possibility. However, if a baseball team only focuses on homeruns, they can lose the game.

The Smith Brain Trust research supports the idea that homeruns are rare, impossible to predict and a misleading focus. Therefore, we believe in the importance of creating 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 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 developing innovative leaders who understand:

  • How to set and communicate clear innovation goals that are ambitious, yet achievable. Leadership that works towards the homerun 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 homerun by an all-star batter. Instead, innovation is a result of cross-functional teams cooperating, collaborating and sharing a vision. 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 silos are connected and forged together. Boundary spanning creates a web to capture multiple innovative possibilities and turn possibility into reality.
  • 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 a successful innovative leadership.

Theories come and go. Fantastic glory comes infrequently and quickly fades. What remains a constant is the importance and value of great leadership. Great leadership is what sustains innovation — both the base hits and the homeruns necessary to win the game.

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