We are surrounded by incremental innovations: televisions with higher picture and better sound quality, more fuel-efficient cars on the road, everyday updates of smartphone apps. These changes meaningfully improve users’ experiences and spur overall progress. But for businesses, incremental innovation creates only a brief margin of safety before user expectations adapt to the new norm and their needs evolve. How can businesses insulate themselves from the rat race of incremental gains and generate disruptive innovation that can transform user experiences entirely?
At Giant Machines, we partner with clients to deliver both incremental and disruptive innovation. Incremental innovation is necessary, albeit reactive: it focuses on product optimization, and learning how to create better value for customers and deliver on unmet user needs through iteration. If these user needs were to be left unaddressed, a business can face wholesale disruption. On the other hand, disruptive innovation is inherently proactive. As Director of Design Strategy Michelle Zassenhausputs it, “you are looking at the white spaces down the road based on forces at play right now, and teasing out the business questions about how you might serve that space. You’re asking yourself, ‘where can I deliver a solution that can be radical?’”
Striking the right balance between reactive and proactive innovation is essential, especially in a world of fast-changing opportunities. “Reactive is important to quickly maintain your competitive advantage in a fast-paced environment, while proactive allows you to extend your margin of safety for a longer time horizon, but will usually require more investment and time,” says Senior Design Strategist Annhien Nguyen. Our work has uncovered three key imperatives when shifting between reactive and proactive innovation.
- Understand your playing field: Innovation does not happen in a vacuum. For Lead Design Strategist Gayatri Mohan, the opportunity for disruptive innovation has to take both short and long term structural forces of change into account. “We have to work with the client to determine what is driving change and identify what that means for getting ahead of the industry instead of simply jumping on the bandwagon,” she says. In practice, this frequently takes the form of joint STEEP (social, technological, economic, environmental, and political) analyses with clients to scan the horizon and identify critical forces of change that might impact a business, its customers and users, or the client’s industry entirely.
- Remember that timing is everything: Michelle notes that the success of innovation (and product development more broadly) is also a function of timing. For example, Uber would not have succeeded without smartphone adoption reaching critical mass by the time its app came to market. Uber would have also been merely a follower in a crowded field had it failed to move quickly in the marketplace. There is a long timeline before a product is mature enough to deliver to an audience. Deep understanding of the user problem and pain points must occur before creating a hypothesis (often generated through rapid research and product validation), development of a minimum viable product, and iteration on it until the product reaches success metrics and warrants adoption, all of which take time.
- Always think about the user: Annhien reminds clients that no matter the extent or speed of change, humans need to remain at the core of any innovation. “You always have to tie it back to the user,” she says. “At the end of the day, you are innovating to meet user needs and improve people’s experiences.”