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Sustaining, breakout, and disruptive innovation

by Andrew Taylor Thursday, January 5, 2012

'Innovation' is the buzz word at many arts conferences these days, and among many funders. With so many things changing in our environment -- all of the STEEP variables at once (Sociological, Technological, Economic, Environmental, Political) -- innovation in programming, practice, business process, strategy, and such seems a best way through.

But as we're busy innovating,  this Co. Design article reminds us that not all innovations are alike.  It suggests three broad types of innovation:

  • Sustaining innovations in products or services are incremental. They help any organization raise the bar enough to stay in the game. In the computer world, this would include incrementally smaller, faster, cheaper laptop computers.
  • Breakout innovations significantly advance the level of play within an existing category. Think about netbooks, for example, that were quite significantly smaller than laptops.
  • Disruptive innovations change the game. According to the article, they are disruptive "because they disrupt the current market behavior, rendering existing solutions obsolete, transforming value propositions, and bringing previously marginal customers and companies into the center of attention." Enter the iPad and other tablet computers.

Each of these types of innovation demand different decision systems and provide different rhythms of results. If an organization is designed toward one kind of innovation (usually sustaining innovations), it can struggle with the other kinds. Rigid decision systems and hierarchies, for example, might work well for minor improvements in existing services, but likely will block or resist disruptive innovation (as such ideas change everything).

The revenue streams from each type of innovation are also different, with successful sustaining innovations paying of moderately in the short term, breakout innovations rapidly strong and then tapering as competitors join the fray, and disruptive innovations often struggling at first but potentially leading to exponential growth.

The point of the article is that organizations and project teams should flag each type of innovation in their work, and give it the space, oversight, and expectation that type deserves. It also suggests that a portfolio of innovations may lead to the most balanced results.

The idea of sustaining, breakout, and disruptive innovation certainly seems ripe for the arts and culture business. What changes are you making that fit into any of those categories, and are you managing it accordingly?