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Improvement or Innovation?


I’ve been on the road for several years now sharing my journey in the world of innovation and some of the lessons i’ve learned along the way. Specifically on the infrastructure an organization puts into place to allow for continuous innovation. I call this the Infrastructure of Design. This blog is not about that, rather it is about one small piece that has triggered many questions and responses. Its the definitions I use to distinguish innovation from improvement. These definitions emerged through years “at it” and the opportunity to play in both worlds, and not from literature. They are practical. So here goes:

You are in the world of improvement when you fundamentally believe that what you have works. Hey you can always make something better, right?

You are in the world of innovation when you fundamentally believe that what you have is broken. (or are stuck on a plateau of non-improvement).

You WANT most of your world to fall in the improvement side of the house. It would be chaotic and expensive if everything were fundamentally broken. In fact you’d probably be out of business. Not everything needs innovating. Some things just need a few tweaks and some focused effort to bring it to the next level. In fact the solution may already be out there. Improvement is cheaper and faster than innovation.

However, SOME things do need innovation. For that a more focused, deeper effort is needed. You may not even know what the real problem is, nor have a clear path to a solution. This is the lovely, inefficient world of innovation. Inefficient because innovation required us to slow down and explore many possible avenues. Inefficient because you WANT innovators to try many ideas and combination of ideas until that magic combo yields a big valuable solution.

There are many organizations that do not separate the two (god love’em) and many that do (god love’em too). There is no right answer as to whether they should be combined or separated. However I, personally, do see great value in separation. Separation allows improvement people to deepen their skills at making the system better, faster. They are the optimizers in our systems.  For the innovators, it allows a deepening of the innovator skill set to tackle the fewer, but more complex challenges. They are the inventors in our systems.

This is not a judgement of ease. Both improvement and innovation are hard work, and each has effective tools and approaches. However it does help to steer organizational challenges to a starting point, knowing full well that they just might end up in the other camp. A good rule of thumb, when in doubt try improvement first.

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