Have you ever had the need to explain to someone (a friend, a colleague or your board) the difference between Continuous Improvement and Innovation? How did you do it? Is there a difference? Well, in this short post, I will share with you a possible explanation that you can use. Of course, you can disagree with me and offer a better argument, which I will be very happy to discuss.
This is an issue that has repeatedly come my way in different environments and circumstances along the years I have been working in innovation. Is Continuous Improvement part of Innovation or not? And if not, what is the difference? This doubt normally relates to what we call “Incremental Innovation”, that part of the innovation activities which is closer to the current business and does not imply radical changes. This is because the general understanding of “Continuous Improvement” or “Operational Improvement” is basically related to doing it a little better every day, quite associated to the realms of Quality, Efficiency, and Operational Excellence. I don’t want to enter into an academic discussion of the term as this has never been the objective of this blog, and I am sure there are very good arguments against my statement, but I want to remain practical and I believe this is the most widespread understanding of what Continuous improvement is.
But how about Innovation? Again, many definitions and understandings, but I will stick to the one I have liked the most, which is doing things differently to add value. So, do we add value when improving? Normally yes, but are we doing things differently? And here is the catch… what do you understand by differently? Because you normally improve when you accumulate experience and become more efficient at a task, but I would not call that doing things differently. But how about reorganising an industrial process to make it more efficient? I mean, changing the sequence or combining tasks to improve efficiency. And if we are digitising the process? Would it be different and thus become innovation? By the way, not in the scope of this post, but the discussion of the different meaning of Digitisation, Digitalisation and Digital Transformation is another interesting conundrum… check this article for an interesting scope on the matter.
Well then, my proposal is to have a criteria to differentiate Continuous Improvement from Incremental Innovation, because for me they are not the same. They both pursue similar objectives, improving your activities, increasing your performance, but for me the difference lies in the way of reaching that goal and the risk associated to it. I believe that Continuous Improvement is taking steps in that direction, while Innovation is actually taking a jump, which will get you further on the path, but it has some risk associated to it. Walking versus Leaping… I believe this intuitive concept can help you make that distinction in your mind, because the key point here is that these activities should be managed differently if we want to succeed.
Of course you can also use this Leaping analogy to differentiate types of innovation. A leap forward, where you start from well know terrain and you can see where you need to land without jumping very far, although you can still trip (small and controlled risk), would be Incremental Innovation. Taking a sideways jump, where your landing terrain is familiar but not well known and your jumping stance is not so comfortable as you are jumping laterally (greater risk), we could relate to Adjacent Innovation. And finally, when you take a leap of faith, not really knowing where or how you will land, that would be Radical or Transformational Innovation. If you want more information about these definitions, you can check my previous post on Innovation Horizons. By the way, Disruptive Innovation (in Christensen’s sense) would be something else, a leap of faith again, but one normally coming from outside that wreaks havoc in the market along the way.
I hope this short discussion has illuminated a little bit this maybe too academic issue with an intuitive concept. Remember, the key point is that Innovation needs to be managed differently and with different tools that Operational Improvement. Both are equally necessary and need to be done properly. So, walk or leap, but don’t stay still, because as the Red Queen told Alice, in this world, if we stay still, we fall behind!