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Don't mistake continuous improvement for innovation

May 10, 2016

It’s easy to mistake continuous improvement for innovation, and unfortunately, it’s a mistake that many leaders (and their organizations) make. The danger is in believing that you have an innovative culture, when in reality, you don’t. The good news? It’s not too late to start driving innovation in your organization.

While the two may seem similar, they are actually drastically different. Continuous improvement is marked by gradual improvements to an existing process, system, or product. Innovation is transformation. It’s a departure from what is currently being done (or produced or sold, etc.), to something meaningfully unique. (A side note: According to the Innovation Engineering methodology, “meaningful” means that a customer will pay more for your products or services; “unique” means that the product or service is different from what others are doing. This combination is key to innovation, and the results are nothing short of spectacular.)

Continuous improvement involves making incremental (and usually necessary) changes to an existing product or service. The improvements made are logical and are often a natural evolution in the life of the product, service, or system. The danger in mistaking improvement for innovation is that the organization is still creeping up (and over) the business lifecycle curve despite those improvements; without innovation, there is no regeneration of the curve to grow and transform further.

Innovation is disruptive. It involves disregarding the status quo, thinking outside the box, and developing meaningfully unique ideas to set you apart from your competitors. It’s uncomfortable, it involves risk, and the payoff is greater. It’s also incredibly rewarding: developing something new and different that solves a problem your customer has usually provides you and your team with the motivation to keep innovating. An innovative culture perpetuates an innovative mindset, and that means continuous improvement is replaced by continuous innovation. Exciting right?

Make no mistake: having a continuous improvement mindset is a great asset for the foundation of innovation. Making changes and improvements is important to the lifecycle of any product or service. But, by using a system to drive innovation (such as Innovation Engineering), an organization can quickly shift from making continuous improvements to becoming truly innovative. The first step? Critically evaluate if your organization is improving or innovating. Keep in mind: if it feels comfortable, it’s an improvement. Not an innovation.

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