Three Kinds of Innovation

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The New York Times runs a little feature every Sunday called “The Boss.” In it, CEOs talk about their careers. What I like most about the feature is that it usually covers a CEO that I’m not familiar with. Last Sunday it was Alex Kummant, CEO of Amtrak. Here’s a core quote.

“Part of life in heavy industry involves a certain dogged persistence in pursuing incremental improvements. I contrast that with the Silicon Valley executives who say you need to have big goals and challenge the organization. I don’t disagree with that, but when you grow up in manufacturing or transportation, the incremental improvements you make every day are what create robust change in the end.”

Kummant’s comments reminded me that we often talk about innovation as if it were one thing, when, in fact, there are at least three kinds that matter to businesses. They differ in scope and impact and in the key success factors required. What Kummant was talking about is incremental improvement.

That is the kind of innovation exemplified by the Japanese word, “Kaizen.” We’re familiar with if from lean manufacturing, the Toyota Production System, and James Bryan Quinn’s “logical incrementalism.” The changes it brings about are cumulative. It’s a management philosophy and you need a system to make it work.

Innovation can also refer to what Anthony Pascale called “stepwise improvement,” the big change that makes a major improvement in a process or product. It’s the kind of innovation that A. G. Lafely writes about in Game-Changer. The key to success with this kind of innovation is the process of selecting and trying innovations to keep and cultivate the best ones.

That kind of innovation causes significant change, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals. For that you need the kind of innovation and change that Clayton Christensen described in The Innovator’s Dilemma. It’s the “creative destruction” described by Schumpeter. This kind of innovation doesn’t just change the game, it also changes your world. Success comes from being willing to uproot the past and seize the future.

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