March 10, 2023


Yesterday, I had a wonderful conversation with an innovation leader from one of the National Laboratories in the US. 

As we conversed, he asked with curiousity, "I haven't heard you mention breakthrough innovation yet; you've talked about incremental."

In the innovation world, we often talk about three kinds of innovation: incremental (core), adjacent and breakthrough (transformational). Here's what these mean:

1: Incremental (core) innovation: this is innovation that applies to the regular business - it's improvements on processes, systems and things that are in the everyday. You could see this as process improvement.

2. Adjacent innovation: this is innovation that leverages something an organization already does well and enters a new space with it. Years ago, this was pet insurance. Traditional insurers had the ability for risk mitigation and management and wrote a completely new product, for a new audience. 

3. Breakthrough (transformational): this is innovation that completely transforms, creates or eliminates other industries. It's creating breakthroughs and entering into markets that don't even exist yet. This was Netflix. 

My response to this leader was this, "when I teach people how to innovate, I don't focus on these kinds of innovation. Instead, I focus on unlocking their innovative potential and removing the barriers that prevent them from being able to think breakthrough because they're stuck in incremental."

The leader responded back joyfully and told me how helpful that was for him to hear.

Consider this: if you were in a meeting and the manager looked at you and said, "We're going to create breakthrough innovation today. I want all your ideas on the table. Go!" What would your response be?

If you're like most people, you'd probably stare blankly, feel overwhelmed and not know what to do. It's a LOT of pressure. Personally, if I was given a prompt like that, I'd react the same way. 

The reason why transformational (breakthrough) innovation is hard, is because being able to dream, to think freely without the limits of today, does not come naturally for most. It requires you to be able to let go of the present, let go of how things work today and create a completely new future, a future that doesn't exist. This type of thinking is rare, but it can absolutely be taught. 

When I was young, I watched a lot of Star Trek. It was one of my favourite TV shows and I believe it shaped how I looked at things. I see possibilities. I get excited about the future and what could be. I truly believe anything is possible. Barriers and limitations are things to overcome, not things to stop me. But, over my career, I've come to see this type of thinking is not commonplace.

So what can we do about this? 

Instead of focusing on the types of innovation - focus on empowering your people and showing them how to think differently, more boldly, more broadly.That's what will unlock their ability to create adjacent and breakthrough innovation. The more they let go of limitations, assumptions and reasons why things won't work and the more they lean into a mindset of possibility, boldness and curiousity, the more you will see these kinds of innovation happen.

In other words, as a leader, if you want to see incremental, adjacent and breakthrough innovation happen in your organization, focus on teaching and equipping your people with the right mindsets and skillsets to innovate, don't focus on the three kinds of innovation. 

Let your people innovate the way they want to. Empower them to find problems and discover opportunities and solve them! And if it ends up being incremental, adjacent or breakthrough innovation fantastic! Your employees will be more satisfied and fulfilled because they're making a difference and seeing their ideas come to life and your organization will benefit. 

What are your reactions? How are you empowering your people to innovate? Comment and let me know what you think!

About the Author

Leo is a people and heart-first entrepreneur who believes everyone can be an innovator. An innovator himself, with 55 US patents and over 20 years of experience, Leo has come alongside organizations like Chick-fil-A and guided them to unleash the innovative potential of their employees by transforming them into confident innovators.

Leo’s friendly, joyful and enthusiastic demeanour makes the journey to innovation exciting and attainable. Leo’s also a LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® trainer & facilitator who believes unlocking innovation takes new approaches.

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