2.1 Radical v evolutionary change
Michael Kirton differentiates between innovators, who do things differently, and adaptors, who do things better (Kirton, 2003). There are occasions when an individual or team is able to propose a radical new way of doing things that appears to owe little to conventional wisdom or past practice. Such discontinuous change may justifiably be regarded as ‘risky’. Should it require major investment to make it happen, many risk-averse management teams may take quite a bit of convincing before backing such an endeavour.
The ‘safer’ alternative is described by Kirton as adaption. For example, the original Boeing 737 first flew in 1967. Its longevity implies a really sound basic design, but masks the myriad, often small incremental changes that have kept the aircraft competitive over the years. In much management literature the term continuous improvement is used to describe the accumulation of small incremental changes that collectively amount to something quite significant.
The Boeing 737 is the best-selling commercial jet in history with more than 7400 being delivered to customers around the world by November 2012. To the untrained eye, a 737 looks pretty much the way it did when it entered service in 1968, and yet the changing environment for commercial jets (in terms of available technology, required fuel economy, noise levels, pollution control, evermore rapid turnaround at airports, passenger facilities and expectations) means that, in nearly 40 years, few of the 350,000 plus components involved in the aircraft will have survived unchanged. This gradual process has resulted in so many improvements that a ‘Next Generation 737’ will significantly outperform the original design in just about every area. The cumulative effect of the incremental changes probably merit the term innovation, as would the process by which all those changes came to pass.
The importance of evolutionary, incremental change, tends to be underestimated in the West; most public and press attention has historically been focused on ‘glamorous’ big breakthroughs. (This has parallels with the attribution of organisational success to some heroic figure, usually the Chief Executive or equivalent.) Yet radical innovation is still the exception rather than the rule and cumulative gains from incremental improvement are critically significant. It seems likely that the vast majority of innovations, both in terms of impact and number, are of an incremental or evolutionary nature (see Figure 2).
Activity 7 Radical v incremental innovation
Think of some innovations you have been associated with. Were they the result of radical events or did the experience result from the accumulation of a series of more minor changes?
Innovation can be defined asthe successful exploitation of new ideas that implicitly allow the continuous accumulation of incremental changes alongside major, potentially discontinuous change.