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The Small Steps of Innovation

Posted on May 24th, 2016 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


We often think of innovation as huge, disruptive and significant shifts in products or processes. We latch on to the idea that real innovation takes a spark of genius and a re-imagination of the way we see the world. While I’d agree that sometimes that perception is true, more often than not, innovative happens in small steps. It’s not as exciting or explosive as it first appears.

Slow and Steady

Even in the cases where we see industry or life changing products or processes rolled out, there’s more going on under the surface than we notice at first.

Look at Apple with the iPad or the iPhone before it. It would be easy to describe both of those as highly innovative, market defining, world changing products. And in a lot of ways all of those labels would be true.

But behind the scenes in the day-to-day development of those products, I’d suggest that things looked a whole lot less revolutionary. While the iPhone was a game-changer in that we hadn’t seen anything quite like it before, the technology that went into the product wasn’t all that special. The iPhone’s functionality wasn’t worlds apart from other products on the market. The one thing that was very different though, was the way the products were marketed.

Looking from a technical perspective, you could make the case that those products were more about the incremental improvement of products already on the market than they were about huge technological innovation. But that is almost never the way either of them are described.

I’d suggest that with both the iPhone and iPad, Apple had the perfect balance of improving what already existed and solving the problems users were facing in the most effective way (just as we looked at in this post). Apple managed to hold both of those viewpoints together and it’s the combination of the two that made these products powerful. There was enough incremental improvement, and enough redefinition of the way user problems were addressed, for both products to be revolutionary.

Incremental Improvements

It’s perhaps more true now than ever before, for most technologies and industries at least, that innovation happens most often through systematic and intentional refinement. Examples of the lone creative genius coming up with a game-changing idea in a garage, developing it and launching their creation into the world are the exception rather than the rule.

Innovation today is not about finding the silver bullet or completely redefining the way organizations are run. Instead it’s about taking small steps to improve what we have, to refine our understanding of a problem or a technology, to become more efficient and effective in our thinking. Day-to-day it’s those small steps that lead us to innovation. On their own they’re not much to look at, but after a while they can lead us to somewhere quite exciting.

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