Sunday, March 06, 2005

Radical vs. Incremental Innovation

“It is not by improving on the candle that the electric light bulb was invented."

That is the real difference between incremental and disruptive innovation. Inventors who searched for new forms of wax, better wicks, scents and colors for the wax, and complementary lantern designs were engaging in incremental innovation. Disruptive innovators worked to turn electrical power into a reliable and ubiquitous source of lighting.

Betz defines Radical Innovation as “a basic technological innovation that establishes a new functionality.” He also defines Incremental Innovation as “a change in an existing technology system that does not alter functionality but improves performance, features, safety, or quality incrementally or lowers cost.” (Betz, 2003)

Moving from candles to kerosene lamps is disruptive to the candle trade and its associated suppliers for wax, wicks, scents, colors, molds, and production equipment. However, these provide very similar capabilities to the customer and it would not be considered radical because the use of the lamps is fundamentally the same as for candles.

Creating electric lighting allows the customer to place lighting in places that a lamp lighter could not reach. It allows the distribution of light on city streets, without the limitations associated with humans to light and clean the lanterns. Benjamin Franklin was a champion of public services like the lighting of the streets. However, he noticed the problems associated with the traditional glass balls that enclosed the lamps. They blackened quickly, requiring frequent cleaning, and when broken were difficult to replace (Franklin, 1778). Electric lights change this entire dynamic.

Additional examples of incremental and radical innovations are provided in the table below. The area of military systems and large government projects is filled with examples of radical innovation.

Domain Incremental Innovation Radical Innovation
Air-delivered Bombs Growth from the 500 lb. To the 2000 lb. bomb Fat Man (Hiroshima) and Little Boy (Nagasaki) Nuclear Bombs
Spacecraft Transition from a Mercury capsule on top of a Pershing missile to an Apollo
capsule on a Saturn rocket
Space Shuttle for reusable launch, reentry, and human/cargo combinations.
Theater Missile Defense Longer-range ground-based missiles Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) to disable threat missiles from
space-based platforms
Global Communication PBX-based telephone service expansions like voice mail, call transfers,
and software-based number assignment
Voice Over IP systems that place all telephone services in computer software
and eliminate the need for traditional services. This foundation can integrate
voice, video, data, and business applications into one medium.


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