Incremental Innovation vs Radical Change

I toured President Garfield’s home yesterday while in OH and I had that ‘everything-new-is-old-again feeling’.  

While touring the library Garfield’s wife Crete (short for Lucretia) set up in their home as a memorial to the assassinated President, our tour guide, Charles, pointed out a desk given to Garfield as a sample. 

The craftsman, named Woodson if I heard our guide correctly, had created a marvelous desk – top of the line in storage options with two swing out arms full of cubbies – top to bottom – for easy sorting and accessing all kinds of papers.  He was trying to crack into the business market with his innovative desk design and he hoped Mr. Garfield, with all his prominence, would influence industrialists to use this kind of desk in their corporate operations. Celebrity endorsement anyone???

But, it never caught on.  Why?  Probably a lot of different reasons – we live in a black-white-and-shades-of-gray, multi dimentsional world.  But, one of the main reasons was because at the same time, another innovation was making its way into the business market.  It was called a file cabinet.  It was a pretty radical idea at the time.  Who says you have to keep all your papers folded and stuffed in cubbies in your desk anyway?  Woodson’s desk was an incremental innovation on desks and how they stored paper.  The filing cabinet was a radical change in where and how papers were stored.  Woodson had bad timing with a good idea.

Sometimes, increment innovation works – small improvements on an existing product are nothing new and they are an effective way to build brand loyalty and keep your customers interested.  At other times a leap in technology or radical change is either needed or worse for you, taking place somewhere outside your business.  E-mail and texting is having a significant impact on our postal system, digital readers and the internet are shaking up the print world.

Are you paying attention to the innovation and change as it is happening all around you or are you focused in only on what you are doing?  We are living in a world that is changing both incrementally and exponentially faster than ever before.  If you want your business to stay relevant, it is not enough to just have incremental innovation anymore (it was fine in the 80’s and 90’s) you have to create and watch out for massive shifts in what people are doing, how they are doing it and you need to keep an eye out for changes happening outside your immediate sphere that can have a market shifting impact on your business.

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