Revolutionary Vs. Evolutionary Innovation

by | Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Last week, author Ralph Ohr wrote a blog post titled, “Evolutionary and Revolutionary Innovation” in response to recent discussions with RE:INVENTION and a blog post written by RE:INVENTION CEO’s former Entrepreneur Magazine editor, Rieva Lesonsky.

In his post, Ralph suggested that companies must pursue both revolutionary and evolutionary innovation to survive. He postulates that evolutionary innovation focuses on orientation towards today’s customers and revolutionary innovation focuses on orientation of tomorrow’s customers. That only revolutionary innovation is associated with uncertainty.

Hat tip to both Ralph and Rieva for their thought-provoking blog posts. With respect, we disagree. We must own a different dictionary. Authors and academics often amuse us with their semantics and misuse of terms.


EVOLUTION (the definition of the word by way of is defined as gradual change, adaptation, progression, metamorphosis.

REVOLUTION is defined as forcible overthrow for an entirely new system…drastic, disruptive, far-reaching, momentous change.

So let’s apply these definitions to the concept of innovation. BOTH evolutionary innovation and revolutionary innovation need to focus on orientation of today’s customers AND tomorrow’s customers to gain traction. BOTH evolutionary innovation and revolutionary innovation are fed by visionary foresight. BOTH are connected to high uncertainty.

Not all firms need both (or can/must manage both).

The Advantages of Evolutionary Innovation

EVOLUTIONARY INNOVATION mounts challenging hill after hill at an even pace, day after day. Evolutionary innovation plans for the world as it could be and begins calculated migration to new ideas while understanding the world as it is today. Revolutionary innovation (particularly unmitigated, first or speed to market revolutionary innovation) can deplete energy and resources; akin to climbing a hill comprised of Confectioner’s sugar. Frenetic pacing over unstable, dramatically varied terrain – forcing change for a new system or idea prematurely while ignoring the realities of today’s market — is a lot more challenging.

We can point to numerous examples where evolution worked and revolution failed in the automotive, energy, technology, and transportation industries. For more, see: Proof that non-linear or revolutionary innovations do not always achieve the most significant advances.

The Facts:

Revolutionary innovation (speed or first to market concepts) is only optimal under the following conditions: high performance products, long product lifecycles, a relatively long window of market opportunity, relatively high sales, stable margins, and relatively flat development costs. Only given these conditions, can companies generate sufficient revenue to offset the increased costs incurred with speed to market and revolutionary innovation.
– Source: “Speed to Market and New Product Performance Tradeoffs,” Journal of Product Innovation Management

There are really only three scenarios in which first to market revolutionary innovation can guarantee a sustainable advantage: (1) if you can secure ironclad patent protection (2) if you can set a proprietary industry standard, or (3) if you can use your lead to establish such a beachhead that even if better options become available, your customers will find it too much of a hassle to switch. In nearly all other cases, best beats first.
– Source: Jim Collins, “Good to Great”

Companies that EVOLVE AND REFINE an innovation tend to achieve greater stock value gains than the original company disruptor. More:
– Source: National Bureau of Economic Research

Lest we forget: the iPod was not the first MP3 player, the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, and the iPad wasn’t the first tablet. Apple ENHANCES. Apple EVOLVES ideas. The idea that Apple is a disruptive, revolutionary innovator is pure bunk. In the words of the always brilliant, Patrick Thibodeau (Computerworld’s senior editor): “the iPad is about as innovative as the toaster.” Apple excels at EVOLUTION.

Inventors disrupt; most companies evolve. Companies that try to “disrupt” (take for instance, biotech startups) rarely commercialize anything at all. Their company or product is acquired by a company that can bring the idea to market. Yes there are outliers, but they are few and far between. And that’s OK.

The reality is that most successful companies out-execute the competition with a new twist on an existing product or service *OR* they are better-equipped to commercialize an invention than the original inventor. Companies should see competition as an opportunity to improve products and customer service. Connecting with customers in the marketplace should be the ultimate goal, not speed to market or “revolutionary innovation.” Quick pause: the word “should” makes us shudder, so let’s say it in a different way. Companies are generally better off when they focus on people, action and impact rather than technology and “innovation.” That’s basic good business. It’s amazing how many companies fail at the basics. Get the basics right and you can build a sustainable business. People (customers and employees) drive company prosperity and change the world for good.

Additional Resources
– RE:INVENTION’s 10 Principles of Everyday Inventive Companies:
– Check out this “Creative versus Innovative” debate on LinkedIn. Semantics! Focus on people, action and impact instead.

Ralph-Christian Ohr
Ralph-Christian Ohr

Looks like a continuation of our interesting discussion, Kirsten. Upon closer consideration, I don’t think our lines of thought are too much apart. I basically agree with you that successful innovation isn’t about first-to-market or pioneering but about first-to scale and subsequent evolution. It’s not the inventor of a revolutionary technology or product who is likely going to succeed, but the innovator who is capable of embedding it in a scalable business model. That’s one major reason why e.g. Apple stands out. As you can see, I included this point in a slightly revised version of this post: Now let me comment to some of your further points: • It seems to me, that you strongly identify ‘revolutionary innovation’ with invention and first-to-market, but that’s not my point. I’m trying to say that companies need to be able to evolve and improve their existing business (to be described as upward movement on a s-curve) on the one hand. On the other hand, they are also required to start a new business (s-curve) when the old business matures and growth declines. This implies in most cases a discontinuous transition to a novel business model. The challenge for companies during this transition phase is then to manage execution of the old and validating/scaling of the new business model in parallel. Research (e.g. Tushman / O’Reilly or Nagji / Tuff) indicates that companies capable of balancing this tension tend to show higher performance. • If we really stick to literature definitions, that would go quite well together with C. Christensen’s interpretation (1997) of evolutionary and revolutionary innovation: - Evolutionary innovation: An innovation that improves a product in an existing market in ways that customers are expecting. - Revolutionary innovation: An innovation that is unexpected, but nevertheless does not affect existing markets. (this definition says, revolutionary innovation doesn’t necessarily need to be disruptive, but can become disruptive in combination with an appropriate business model) • Evolutionary innovation (i.e. evolving existing business) and revolutionary innovation (i.e. preparing future business) address different time horizons. You are right in saying that both are connected with uncertainty. However, the level is inherently higher for the latter. Furthermore, evolutionary innovation can be based on insights of an existing customer base. Revolutionary innovation, in contrast, is an emergent customer development process and validation of hypotheses about preferences at the outset. Understanding of the world as it is today won’t help too much when it comes to anticipating the future. That’s what I mean by customer insight vs. visionary foresight. Final thought: In order to succeed on the long term, it’s essential for organizations, not necessarily to be first, but to get novel ideas to scale. Therefore, they range at the intersection of revolutionary and evolutionary innovation – requiring different capabilities of validation vs. execution and scaling.

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