Clay Christensen, in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, describes two types of product innovation; sustaining and disruptive. Sustaining innovations are evolutionary and they account for most of the “new” products we see. Disruptive innovations are few and far between. They are the ones that change the product significantly and redefine the value proposition.
The problem we face in marketing is that disruptive innovations are so difficult to come by. It isn’t every day that you invent fire or the wheel. We end up thinking that a shaving razor that morphs from one blade, to two, to three and now five, is a real innovation. They are different and to that extent they are new but do they deserve the sobriquet of “innovation”?
Last week Unilever announced financial results that beat its forecasts, mainly (they claimed) due to innovation. The innovations we are talking about are the likes of a foam release with blue pigments that whiten your teeth, a toothbrush that has bristles for the teeth on one side and a tongue brush on the other, Lifebuoy soap with an active silver formula for enhanced germ protection. Come on!
We know that there are amazing innovations nowadays in electronics. However, these don’t seem to have the effect of some earlier innovations. The introduction of the steam engine, followed by electricity, indoor plumbing and the radio all had a significant effect on economic growth. Despite the fact that the share of the American economy given to research and development has expanded by a third since 1975, the output of innovators has shown a relative decline. The average R&D worker in America in 1950 contributed 7 times more to growth than an R&D worker in the year 2000.
It could be that the big breakthroughs in innovation have been made. Or maybe we have simply become impatient. There have been some long time lags between the invention of fire, the wheel, electricity and sliced bread. We shouldn’t stop talking about innovation and we shouldn’t stop seeking it, but we should get real – most innovations we see today are tinkering around the edges.