Levels of Innovation

Perceptions of innovation differ. The ones used in this book will be those generally accepted by the Industrial Research Institute (IRI) a professional society headquartered in Washington, DC. The “Levels of Innovation” figure shows word choice that describes various high level types of innovation. We will be using the terms incremental, next-generation, and breakthrough.

In this chapter we focus on the methodology used to create ideas at these different innovation levels. The lowest level of creativity, “incremental”, really has to do with existing and minor improvements to existing products and services. These ideas are usually ones that come fairly quickly to mind for individuals skilled in the technology and knowledgeable about the business area. The next level of creativity deals with creating “next-generation” products. Solving problem here usually requires not only knowledge of the technology and background area, but the ability to look at the world in an unusual or different manner. The highest level of innovation, “breakthrough”, is usually associated with very unusual ideas that most people can appreciate only in hindsight.

Type of Creativity Needed

To be successful in obtaining the creativity needed for business success, it is important before starting to clarify the type of creative thinking you need. This can be done with the help of questionnaires such as the one shown in the “Type of Creativity Needed” figure. This helps by narrowing efforts to be creative about products, processes, marketing or management. Additionally, you can test to see if you really need incremental or revolutionary results, or something in-between. Finally, you can check to see if you need to work within wide or narrow boundaries (such as time or money). It is critical that a management team be aligned on the type of creativity needed, and ready to fund / proceed with the ideas that are generated. Senior managers have been known to ask for breakthrough innovation, and when those ideas and solutions are developed, they then are not ready to fund the new plant, train a new sales team, or proceed with a new advertising campaign. Thus, making sure everyone is aligned on the type of creativity needed is the first step in a creative business-focused process.

Reflecting for a moment on how past authors have looked at creativity, the seminal work by Thomas Kuhn on the Structure of Scientific Revolutions clearly stands out. He outlines how science progresses, and describes processes of puzzle solving. He delves into great detail about the methodology used by individuals, the importance of groups, the influence of society, and the nature of thought.