There are two visions of the world. In the first one, space is limited, so any new thing needs to come at the expense of something already existing. On the other hand, there is another vision where space is unlimited and there is always room for expansion and creation of new things. Allow me to get a little philosophical today and talk about Innovation from these perspectives.
One of the founding fathers of Innovation theory, Joseph Schumpeter, already stated during the early years of the 20th century that “the gale of creative destruction describes the process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one” (see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative destruction for a deeper discussion). We can all think about well known examples of creative destruction innovation at work, like digital photography o how automobiles displaced horse chariots. Apparently, this idea of creative destruction drinks from the fountain of Hinduism and the figure of Shiva, who embodies this apparent dichotomy of creation / destruction. Well, I told you I was going to get philosophical, didn’t I?
But this idea of creative destruction is not always true. To create, you need not always destroy to make room for your creation. Some inventions or innovations have just enlarged the possibility space. Take the submarine, for instance, it did not displace traditional ships, but instead they opened the depths of the “blue oceans” to humanity (for good and for bad, of course, but that is another story). Another more recent example could be Facebook, or the social networks in general, which opened a new world of human communities, although some may argue that it happened at the expense of face to face relations or traditional mass media. Can you think about other examples?
So how does all this impact our strategic decisions when designing our innovation portfolio? Should we expand our products or auto-cannibalise them instead? Open new markets or substitute the existing ones? Well, I am afraid there is no easy answer to this. Actually, this is the question behind well known Innovation theories like Blue oceans vs Red oceans, Disruptive Innovation or the Innovation horizons. In my view it is always better to create new spaces, to generate new opportunities and to jump ahead of the competition. The problem is that this is no easy task. Not everyone has the capability to see these new spaces before they exist, or has the time and means to focus on invention. The secret, as always, is to play both sides. Look for the substitutory product while you are open to creating new business areas. It is basically, again, the Ambidexterity issue (be able to operate and innovate at the same time), but focussed only on the Innovation side.
My practical recommendation would be to work on improving what already exists until you detect an opportunity for creating something new, something that is tackling a space never addressed before, and go for it! Only searching for the new without really knowing where the opportunity is, may be too risky in real, practical terms, because if you spend all your resources in finding a “next big thing”, you may starve along the way…
P.S.: I just found out that last year a videogame by the name of “Creative Destruction” was released. Apparently it is a mixture of Battle Royale (destroy, destroy) with some constructive concepts. It would be interesting to know what dear old Schumpeter thought about this!