Incremental innovation (sometimes referred to as sustaining innovation) uses existing forms or technologies as a starting point.
It either makes incremental improvements to something or some process or it reconfigures it so that it may serve some other purpose.
It’s about doing what you must do in order to keep a product up-to-date and to continue its use by your customer base.
Radical innovations entail significant transformations of existing practices whereas incremental are more about enhancing what you already have. Possibly by making things easy to use, decreasing costs, improving quality or making it more effective or efficient.
Incremental innovations while new to the organization in which they are implemented may have been used by other organizations.
Gary Hamel a leading author and researcher on innovation suggested that innovation ranges from incremental through to radical.
In his book Leading the Revolution: How to Thrive in Turbulent Times by Making Innovation a Way of Life, he provides a good example –
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Gillette Multi-Blade Razors
“Gillette used to make razors with a single blade. Later, one of its diligent students of stubble asked, Wouldn’t two blades be better than one? Thus was born the Trac II. Next came – guess what? – a razor with three blades – the Mach III. I love Gillette razors – use one every morning.”
Other good examples include the:
The original iPod came in just white and enabled you to store and play your mp3 music collection only.
Incremental improvements occurred over time. You could buy them in many different colors; store your family photographs on them and even store your video collection.
Of course in more recent times the iPod has been entirely replaced by a radical innovation, that of streaming services, e.g. Spotify.
Global Positioning Satellite
These are now commonplace in motor vehicles to assist drivers in getting from A to B.
GPS systems in cars are an example of an incremental innovation in which something that already exists has just been reconfigured to another use.
Intel Pentium Processors
Intel introduced the Pentium 4 computer processor chip as an incremental improvement to the Pentium 3 chip.
Both chips had the same basic technology but the Pentium-4 introduced new design improvements and additional features to improve the chips’ overall performance.
The cars of twenty or thirty years back and beyond could be thought of as quite basic when compared to the cars of today.
Incremental improvements have occurred over time so that it’s common to expect a modern-day car to include electric windows, ABS breaks, airbags, cup holders and the list goes on.
Making incremental improvements is important for extending the marketable life of a product or service.