(This post is based on the video, “Radical Innovation,” in the Design Defined: Design Principles Explained series.)
Radical innovation is the kind of innovation that creates completely novel ideas and products. It blows up the system and replaces it with something entirely new.
Most companies that claim to be innovative aren’t radically innovative. Most practice incremental innovation, which happens in steps and improves upon previous versions.
Incremental innovation is important, but it’s not radical. If you want to get radical, you have to ask if your designs are reaching far enough. If your idea or product isn’t pushing the limits of what’s possible … if it’s not challenging the conventional wisdom about what a product can be, it’s not going to be a gamechanger.
Get Radical: Throw Away Your Plans
If you’re still thinking in small steps, you may need to break the process and throw away your plans.
You’ve probably heard the quote from Eisenhower where he says, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” This is what he’s talking about.
You start down a path, and at some point you have to get off that path and bushwhack a bit to figure out what the right thing to do actually is.
Once you’re off that path, all you have is your curiosity, your analytical skills, your experience, some faith, and a lot of perseverance.
Apple’s Success with Radical Innovation
I was working at Apple when we started on the iPhone and realized we wanted a glass screen. People were buying phones for durability at this point, so a glass screen was a huge risk. We weren’t sure if people would buy a phone that might break when they dropped it.
At the time, Nokia and Motorola’s LCD-screen phones were a huge success. But we knew that touchscreens offered a whole new way of interacting and so many more possibilities for what people could do with a phone.
A multi-touch capacitive screen was necessary to unlock the potential of the device. Because of that, we gambled on people putting up with its fragile nature.
Bucking Conventional Wisdom
Of course, Steve Jobs was uniquely incredible at looking at a product and deciding whether or not it was amazing enough for widespread adoption. If you’re not Steve Jobs, you’re going to need to show decision-makers that customers appreciate the radical thing you’re trying to do.
Startups are better at this than established companies because they don’t have the burden of conventional wisdom.
To achieve radical innovation, you first have to acquire a counterintuitive mindset. And if you can’t, hire people who will spend time questioning your beliefs.
Following conventional wisdom will always lead to the same product. It’s often a rationalization of why current products aren’t selling, based purely on wisdom gained over the years.
Companies have to change that up and question their core beliefs if they want to do something really new. If they don’t, someone else will. That’s why, to achieve radical innovation, you first have to acquire a counterintuitive mindset.
And if you can’t, hire people who will spend time questioning your beliefs to figure out if they’re still valid.
Radical innovation transforms how companies engage with the marketplace. It alters relationships with customers and suppliers and creates entirely new product categories.
This gives startups, which tend to be nimble and easier to redirect, another advantage. But it doesn’t mean that larger, established companies can’t adapt. Companies must be willing to embrace new technical skills and organizational competencies.
Inspiring Radical Innovation
Radical innovation is a delicate balance of science, business, and imagination. The latter allows companies to envision future technologies and the opportunities they’ll create for novel ideas and products.
Radical innovation is a delicate balance of science, business, and imagination.
We also keep an eye on emerging technologies, like those that could help combat climate change. We keep principles like Amara’s Law in mind when forecasting technological change. And we consider how new technologies will impact all users. For example, we’ve thought about how virtual reality can benefit senior citizens by allowing them to socialize and see new places without physically having to go anywhere.
We’re constantly asking ourselves how these trends and new technologies could lead to radical innovation. Even if an idea seems farfetched now, the technology to enable it may arrive in five or 10 years, and when it does, you’ll be better prepared to put it to use.
Radical Innovation Doesn’t Run From Failure
Great design isn’t easy; it shouldn’t be. But that means there’s a chance you’ll fail before you get your new product just right. It’s important not to be afraid of failure. Like Apple, you may need to take a risk.
Prototyping early and often can help companies avoid failure and minimize the impact when it occurs. Your prototype doesn’t have to be complicated or hi-fidelity. In fact, we recommend you start with a simple mockup of your vision and advance methodically from there.
Radical or Disruptive Innovation?
There are nuanced differences between radical innovation and disruptive innovation.
Disruptive innovation happens when a new or small company challenges established players by delivering a product or service in a new way. Netflix and Uber are two great examples.
Before you develop an innovation strategy, it’s important to consider which type of innovation you’re chasing.
Radical innovation creates entirely new products or services. While disruptive innovation tends to focus on immediate change, radical innovation is about creating something that will have a long-term impact.
Before you develop an innovation strategy, it’s important to consider which type of innovation you’re chasing. Incremental, radical, and disruptive will each require a unique approach.
How Can You Foster Radical Innovation?
What conventional wisdom does your company adhere to? And how can you begin to release its grip? How can emerging technologies create opportunities for new products? And what might your marketplace look like in 2030?
These are the type of questions you can begin to ask yourself as you prepare to embrace radical innovation.
Learn about more product design principles when you download our free Design Defined ebooks, v1 and 2!