3 Signs That You Should Pursue Incremental Innovation, Not Disruptive Innovation

Disruption is a popular buzzword in executive meetings nowadays. C-level leaders want to use the hot new technology solution to gain customers and boost revenue.

Those goals are all well and good, but the truth is that disruption isn’t always the way to accomplish them. Sometimes, smaller changes can actually lead to bigger results.

So how do you know whether your company should choose incremental innovation over disruptive innovation? Here are three signs that incremental change is the way to go.

When Leadership Requires Proof

In established organizations, there are certain ways of doing things in order to get a green light from management. Those procedures may include building a business case, displaying market research, or producing a proof of concept.

These checkpoints aren’t good or bad in and of themselves, but they are constraints that make disruptive innovation almost impossible. So if your company insists of these kinds of concrete measures before pushing go, then the way to actually make progress is incrementally.

The good news is this—if you prove your ability to lead incremental innovation, you may earn enough trust to take a big, disruptive swing later on. The incremental steps can help leadership get comfortable with the risks associated with innovation, and help them relax the standard operating procedures or other innovation roadblocks.

When You Need a Quick Win

Maybe the problem isn’t that your business structure prevents disruptive innovation. Maybe the problem is that your business situation makes taking a big swing too much of a risk.

We have recently worked with a client that is anticipating major revenue growth in the coming years but isn’t at the tipping point of that growth yet. As a result, they’re not ready for invest in a major disruption like a new, cutting-edge ERP system. So we recommended some smaller, incremental improvements for the next couple of years that will provide ROI while paving the way for the major move down the road.

Whether this is your company’s overall situation, or whether you individually or in a department need a win to gain management’s confidence, an incremental innovation can get things moving in a positive direction while setting an innovative tone that can snowball into more disruptive projects later.

When Your Industry Is Volatile

We’ve talked about how internal situations in your business can point you toward incremental innovations instead of disruptive ones. It’s just as vital to consider external factors in your industry sector.

We are currently working with a B2B company that intersects regularly with the retail sector. Obviously, there is a lot of turmoil in retail right now, with major company shuttering stores at a rapid rate. Because of this uncertainty, setting out a major three- or five-year plan with major disruptive initiatives just doesn’t make sense right now. So they are focusing on smaller, consistent gains while they see what industry approaches are going to survive.

It’s important to know the landscape of your industry before you take a big swing. You don’t want to put months into a major disruptive attempt only to see changes in your industry render your investment moot.

Of course, if you believe your disruptive idea can solve underlying problems that cause volatility, then perhaps moving ahead is the right move. But make this decision with the volatility in mind, instead of with your head in the sand.


The point of this post isn’t to put down disruption. It’s to show that disruption is a means, not an end. The end goal of any innovation—disruptive or innovative—is to make your company stronger and more successful. By keeping that goal in mind, and keeping your eyes on the realities of your business and your industry, you can make the right choice to help your company reap the benefits of innovation and develop a culture where innovation can thrive.

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