Why the Best Innovations Are Incremental, Not Monumental

invention imageGabor George Burt is an internationally recognized expert on innovation, creativity and strategy development. His bookSlingshot explores the connection between systematic creativity and smart strategy. Download your free copy of the first chapter at SlingshotLiving.com.

Innovation is a vital ingredient for the sustainability of any organization, especially during these fast-changing times. If you don’t continuously re-imagine what you offer, you are in danger of quickly becoming obsolete. But what sort of innovation should you pursue? Moreover, do you need to invent something completely new in order to innovate, or is there a more practical path?
Many of the most successful innovations were not brought about by outright inventions but rather by reconfiguring existing technologies. They represent a refreshing shortcut for today’s businesses.
As Virginia Postrel once remarked: “The most successful innovations are the ones that we stop noticing almost immediately.” The boldest innovations achieve this integration not by being market driven — fulfilling existing demand — but by being market driving — creating new demand and advancing the way people live.

A Few Examples

The Assembly Line

Let’s look at a few examples, first going back in time a bit. Automobiles were already around well before the Model T was introduced in 1908, but they were widely disliked. It was Ransom E. Olds who first created the assembly line in 1901 but it took the pioneering vision of Henry Ford to create mass appeal by combining the two.


Café culture has thrived in many parts of the world since the 15th century, yet it wasn’t an integral part of modern American society before Starbucks. The company combined a well-established concept (cafés) with an efficient and replicable quick-service platform.
In the process, Starbucks gave coffee consumption a lifestyle-driving quality. Instead of people taking coffee to work, consumers would go do work at their local Starbucks. Again, the innovation of Starbucks was not about some decisive, proprietary invention but about creating broad relevance from existing components.


The original inspiration for Twitter came from traditional communication networks for urban transport dispatch systems like those found in taxis and buses. Twitter was built using pre-existing technologies like SMS, email and IM, but combined them in a unique way. The result is a transformative “instant micro-blog” that is changing the way people communicate.
There are already more than 200 million people using Twitter, with 13% of online Americans currently using the social network.
As The New York Times points out: “It has helped transform the way that news is gathered and distributed, reshaped how public figures from celebrities to political leaders communicate, and played a role in popular protests.”

What’s On the Horizon?

Finally, let’s consider a couple of budding innovations that combine existing technologies with market driving possibilities. MyCube is based on meshing the concept of social network sites with the ability to monetize and shield personal content online. Imagine a variation of Facebook in which users have complete privacy and control over their profiles with the option to monetize.
Square is a mobile payment system recently acquired by Visa. It combines handheld devices with credit card readers to allow for mobile transactions. Square’s goal is to facilitate micro-commerce by enabling electronic payment collection for small businesses and service providers that might not be able to accept credit cards.
Such inspiring examples abound. They demonstrate that the innovation shortcut is yours for the taking. Look at the wealth of current technologies as building blocks for your next incremental idea.

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