Will they take the breakthrough route and create a whole new industry? Like putting man on the moon in the sixties or, like PCs in the eighties or, like mobile telephony in the nineties?
Will they seek to disrupt an existing industry with a new business model? Like IKEA, Southwest Airlines, Grameen Bank or the Body Shop in their early years?
Will they unleash the creativity of every one of their people and aim for lots of little improvements in all areas of the business all the time?
Or will they go for the low hanging fruit? Taking their products and services to new geographical markets or new markets segments? Or bringing somewhat improved products to their existing clientele? Or simply bringing in that new IT system that will make operations more efficient? Or benchmarking and constantly upgrading to “best practice” standards?
All the above constitute innovations of sorts. Quite clearly they differ greatly in depth and scope.
The low hanging fruit is the absolute minimum innovation an organization should aim for. As any executive will attest, technology projects and expansion in adjacent areas (bringing new products to existing markets or taking existing products to new markets) can be rewarding. Such ventures are generally low risk because they are based on what the organization already knows how to do quite well. They also take up a lot of energy and can be internally disruptive, but also necessary and likely to confer some improvement.
Going for other innovation types, in addition to reaching for the low hanging fruit, calls for a “stretch”. A stretch on strategy and mindsets. A stretch on resources and the capacity for execution. Internal restructuring will always be necessary if the company goes for a new business model. This guarantees some internal resistance and therefore some energy to counter such resistance. The more drastic innovation options are often riskier too. They may disrupt business and even profitability for a while.
I submit that the even if the choice of piecemeal change looks attractive, no organization should ever stop there. As a minimum it should keep challenging its strategy and stretching its ability to change, relentlessly and unflinchingly. Once in a while it should opt for those fruit that enjoy the sunlight at the top of the tree, the ones that are harder to reach. These will add significantly more value to the company’s future. This is why they are tastier too.