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Disruptive vs. radical innovation: why both are great for business

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

July 27, 2022

Businesses and entrepreneurs are always looking for the next big thing, the next innovation that will take them to the top. But what exactly is innovation, and what are the different methods of achieving it? And most importantly, how can you leverage innovation to expand your business?

Let’s take a closer look.

What is innovation?

Innovation means introducing something new or doing something differently. It can be a new product, a new service, a new process, or a new way of marketing. There are three main types of innovation: disruptive, radical, and incremental.

We’ve already written a guide to incremental innovation, so for the lowdown on what that is, check out our post. But what about disruptive and radical? Both have crossover, but with a few key differences.

What is disruptive innovation?

In 2009, two friends founded a company called Airbnb with the aim of providing an alternative to traditional hotel accommodations. The company let people rent out their homes or rooms to travelers in need of a place to stay.

Airbnb identified a new opportunity (people wanting to rent out their homes or rooms), developed a new product or service (an online platform that connects people looking to rent with those who have space to spare), and launched it in the market.

The company then gained market share from existing players in the hotel industry, such as Marriott and Hilton. This was a disruptive innovation because it created a new market for home-sharing and, in the process, completely shook up the hotel industry.

Disruptive innovation can be radical or incremental — it’s not necessarily a major change. The main feature is that a smaller business, often with fewer resources, enters the market and challenges incumbent firms. They might do this by targeting an overlooked segment, or they might identify a brand new segment.

What is radical innovation?

Disruptive innovation is about creating a new product or service that shakes up the industry. It’s about innovating for the future and creating something previously unimagined, rather than creating something based on existing customer needs.

Radical innovation, on the other hand, is all about reimagining a new product or service that addresses an existing and well-established need. It’s commercial-focused.

Apple’s iPhone is a good example of this. Mobile phones already existed, and the need was well established. However, Apple’s creation was the first smartphone on the market, and it completely changed the way we use technology today.

In fact, the iPhone is considered both radical and disruptive, since it addresses customer needs (it’s a phone, but better) and shakes up the industry (offering internet access on a mobile device was previously unheard of).

Radical and disruptive innovation: best practice

If you’re looking to create a new product or service, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of success:

1. Understand the needs of your target market

This is key for any business, but it’s especially important for organizations that are trying to innovate. It’s crucial to understand what your target market wants and needs before you can create a new product or service they’ll love. Radical innovation typically involves a big change, which tends to mean lots of time and resources. Therefore, you’ll need to be pretty confident it’s going to land well.

2. Research your competition

Always pay attention to what your competition is doing. Having solid knowledge of your industry will help you identify gaps in the market you can exploit with your new product or service. There’s no point investing all that time and money only to find out your ‘innovation’ already exists.

3. Build a strong team

When you’re trying to innovate, having a strong team behind you is invaluable. Include people with different skills and expertise, so you can bounce ideas off each other and come up with something truly creative.

4. Fail fast

When you’re trying to innovate, you’re going to fail sometimes. And that’s OK! The important thing is to fail fast and learn from your mistakes. This way, you can quickly adapt and improve your product or service until you find something that works.

5. Keep your existing customers happy

Continuing to prioritize your current customer base is key for any business. It’s important to keep your customers happy and engaged so that they’ll stick with you during the ups and downs of innovation. Don’t neglect them while you’re busy trying to come up with new products, or you won’t have anyone left to try them when you do finally launch.

6. Create an MVP

A minimum viable product, or MVP, is a good way to decrease risk when you’re about to launch something new. Essentially, it’s a pared-back prototype of your product or service, which you create cheaply and test on a small audience.

If it’s a flop, then you know not to pursue the project. But if it’s a success, you’ll be more confident investing more time and money into it — which could also help you get funding from investors. Airbnb is a good example: before it was the $113 billion giant it is today, it began life as Airbed&Breakfast — a few camp beds, a WiFi connection, and breakfast in the two founders’ living room.

7. Use collaboration technology

There are a number of different collaboration tools available beyond email and phone. And in this day and age, there’s really no excuse not to have a mix!

Collaboration tools can be really useful for businesses that are trying to innovate, as they allow workers to easily communicate with each other and share ideas in whatever format suits them. They’re also ideal for remote/hybrid teams, who inherently need extra options when it comes to staying in touch.

Here are some essentials for your toolkit:

  • Diagramming tools are great for team brainstorming sessions, web/design development, collaborative diagrams, virtual whiteboards, and more.
  • Project management software can help keep everyone on track and ensure that ideas are properly fleshed out before they’re put into practice. They’re also ideal for teams, managers, and stakeholders to see what the rest of the team is doing, but in a more hands-off way.
  • Chat apps are the way to go for more casual communication. Team members can check in with each other, host group discussions, and send each other videos and GIFs to keep the conversation fun.
  • Video platforms are a good addition to email and phone for more important conversations. Being able to see someone’s face and hear their tone of voice can be a big help when it comes to communicating effectively. Misunderstandings are more likely to happen when we work with text alone, leading to bad tempers, confusion, or a full-blown communication breakdown.

Disruptive and radical innovation: pitfalls to watch out for

There are a few potential pitfalls that businesses need to be aware of when trying to innovate:

1. Don’t try to be everything to everyone

When you’re trying to innovate, it’s important to focus on a specific need or opportunity. Trying to be everything to everyone will only result in a watered-down product or service that doesn’t really meet anyone’s needs.

2. Don’t underestimate the competition

It’s important to research your competition thoroughly before you launch your new product or service. Otherwise, you may find yourself quickly outpaced by more established players or end up creating a product or service that’s been done better by someone else.

3. Don’t get too attached to your ideas

When you’re trying to innovate, it’s important to be open to new ideas and willing to change course if necessary. If you’re too attached to your original idea, you may miss out on a better solution.

4. Don’t forget about your customers

Always keep your customers in mind when you’re trying to innovate. After all, they’re the ones who will be using your product, so it’s important to make sure that it meets their needs. Put them at the center of everything you do, and you’ll be in good stead.

5. Don’t give up (but also know when to try something new)

Innovation is hard work, and there will be times when it seems like you’re never going to find a successful solution. But if you persevere, you’ll find something that works. And when you do, it’ll all be worth it.

On the flip-side, if your product or service is becoming a huge drain without much uptake, or your MVP isn’t getting positive feedback, then it might be time to throw in the towel and try something new. Even if you don’t find the perfect solution right away, keep plugging away. Eventually, you’ll get there.

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