Innovation vs. mere improvement: how do you know what you have?

As part of my gift to some of my kickstarter supporters for Mindfire, I offered to write a blog post on the topic of their choice. Here’s the first of many to come.

Dirk Haun asked:

Can you draw a line between what’s considered Innovation and what’s merely considered an Improvement?

I’ve ranted before about jargon in creativity. The fancy language we hear is not the language inventors use. Find the people who actually invented anything and you’ll find the language they use is very simple. Words like prototype, problem, experiment, design and solution. They have a problem in mind and they aim all their energy at solving it. The fancy words (breakthrough, innovation, disruptive, game-changing) mostly come from people who arrive well after the inventing and innovating is done, including innovation consultants. It’s worth asking anyone using the word innovation to define it as often they can’t, which begs the question why are they using it so much then?

Second, deciding what is incremental and what is revolutionary is subjective. There is no universal measurement. From Swan’s perspective, Edison made some minor tweaks to light bulb design. To anyone who was ignorant of Swan’s work, Edison seemed Promethean. To pre-revolution Americans, democracy seemed brilliant and new. To anyone who’d studied the Greeks, they’d think the U.S. was ripping them off (down to the way we styled our monuments in D.C.). To measure an idea, you need to define who it’s being aimed at, as where you aim will change the value of the idea.

Third, small changes can have disproportionately large effects. See Does Size Matter for ideas? (HBR). You don’t necessarily need a big idea to have big changes on an industry or a product. Some very small ideas can have surprising leverage for change.

To directly answer the question, Innovation is largely a word used to describe the scale of the effect on an idea, rather than the idea itself. And since no inventor controls the effect their idea has on the world, innovation is frequently a term than lands on ideas/products after they’re been released into the world, rather than before.

From the widest perspective, all ideas are incremental. Every new idea,  no matter how radical, is comprised of previous ideas and concepts, albeit perhaps combined in novel ways. Is the Prius a radical idea? Depends how much you know about the history of automobiles. Different power sources were a big part of the early days of car design, when steam and electricity were contenders.

The most sensible way to evaluate an idea is its potential impact on who it’s specifically being designed for, and what problem it solves for them. If you save someone’s life with an incremental idea, they’ll be just as happy as if you used an innovative one. They don’t care about the label, they care about the effect.  As the tragic counterpoint: if you fail to solve their problem with an innovative idea, they’ll be very angry, and then they’ll be very dead.

An incremental change can have a huge effect on a particular customer. If someone only speaks Spanish, and you add support for that language (an incremental improvement) it can have huge positive impact. And by the same token, a radical change to a product can have negative or no effect at all on customers. The mere fact that a new idea introduces change for users, and relearning, may mean the learning costs outweigh any of the benefits provided by the new idea.

13 Responses to “Innovation vs. mere improvement: how do you know what you have?”

  1. Michael Minella


    I wrote about this very topic a couple years ago. I believe that innovation is relative to the audience. I (and Webster) view innovation simply as something new. If it is new to the audience, it’s innovative.

    Here is the blog post I did previously on the topic:

    Michael Minella

  2. Sean Crawford

    Your last points remind me of the short story “Superiority” by Arthur C. Clarke, allegedly on the required reading list for M.I.T. students, about a military that kept coming up with cool innovative secret weapons in the middle of a shooting war. Cool, but impractical. They lost the war.

  3. Will Woodward

    Yep, couldn’t agree more. Nobody needs a ‘clever’ measure of ‘innovativeness’!

    A barrier to creative problem solving that I often have to help people over is- “but is this really a new idea?”.

    Valuable time and energy can be lost down that conversation rabbit hole. How about we choose not to care for now, and think about that when we start judging our ideas later?

  4. Credo India

    The post with relate to Innovation vs.mere improvement was a good one.

    Further i can recall the early days of Bajaj Pulsar a two wheeler designed by Bajaj Company in India.

    The Bajaj Pulsar was designed jointly by Bajaj Auto and Tokyo R&D, a Japanese design firm with other successful motorcycles under its belt. The development took several years and was a costly enterprise, putting the financial future of Bajaj Auto at stake. But targeted at young buyers, Bajaj Pulsar has been available for sale in India since 2001 and it was a major sales success from its invention.

    The initial Bajaj Pulsar was available with either a 150cc or 180cc engine. Both were single-cylinder, air-cooled engines. By 2003 the 150-250cc market class was firmly established and buyers were no longer unwilling to spend more money for a higher performance motorcycle. Building on its sales success, Bajaj Auto began a series of improvements that would keep the Bajaj Pulsar novel and commercially viable for years to come.

    For more details please visit the below link:

  5. Jerky

    I love your posts! *subscribed*

  6. Rat Bastard

    Needs more dogs with laser-beam eyeballs.

  7. Bob DiPasquale

    I think you may be overlooking the biggest reason the question gets asked. The answer could be the difference in being able to file intellectual property protection. The financial implications of that are why ‘improvements’ often don’t get funded enough to grow. For example here’s a better way to measure humor at … it’s downright innovative – but most likely from an IP standpoint it goes in the improvement bucket.

  8. hairedresin

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