Deconstructing Breakthrough Innovation

Amid the dynamic marketplace we work, it’s challenging to keep your head on a swivel. Head up. Eyes open. Situational awareness is a characteristic that many leaders strive for yet struggle to consistently achieve. Oftentimes, intent focus on operational efficiencies gives rise to after the fact realizations of a lost opportunity. Today, we’re taking a step back to deconstruct breakthrough innovation, with the goal of helping lay the foundation for establishing an organizational perspective that promotes and pursues breakthrough innovation while creating value for your business.

Deconstructing Breakthrough Innovation

The key characteristics are simple enough on the surface;

  • typically involve pushing the boundaries of science and technology
  • may require knowledge or expertise that may not exist or doesn’t exist within the company
  • tend to change the rules of the game and in some cases, changes the game itself
  • can at times have longer time-to-market horizons

Breakthrough innovations are oftentimes held in contrast to incremental innovations which are gradual in nature and fail to change the game. An easy way to remember the difference is to ask the question, whether a new product/service is breaking out of the existing marketplace, as a result of a new scientific or technology discovery.

For example, a few years ago P&G’s Tide+ collection released the “Zap! Cap” which provides a mechanism for pre-treating stains by just tipping the bottle over and rubbing the cap on the fabric. Similarly, Tide PODS could be considered a breakthrough innovation. In both cases, the boundaries of technology and science were pushed in order to create a new product category, thereby changing the “rules” of the detergent game. But wait, isn’t the cap just another cap and aren't the PODS really just laundry detergent? Yes, absolutely but the "breakthrough" indicator is the science and technology inputs that pushed the boundaries and changed the game for Tide competitors. Lest we forget, P&G was the first to launch Tide PODs and with its success it virtually forced competitors to catch up or lose market share.

Critical Thoughts

Differentiating breakthrough innovation from Disruptive Innovation is a valuable perspective for framing a competitive strategy in the pursuit of new products and for identifying a derivative of a product as potential “breakout”.  Leveraging the "breakthrough innovation" lens, can help in defining a go to market strategy or identifying that of a competitor. Equally important, if a strategic goal is to be a breakthrough innovator, defining an approach to leverage expertise and knowledge that doesn’t exist within the organization is crucial. Frankly speaking, breakthrough innovation is not "easy" but with a thoughtful approach organizations can effectively address the uncertainties and dissolve the risks.