So, maybe it is a trick question… Or, the context isn’t clear. Either way, the question itself exemplifies the stumbling block for all who seek to innovate. In the past handful of years, Innovation has become as overused as Strategist before it. While there used to be a sense of awe or wonder for those with the title of Chief Innovation Executive or Head of Innovation, that title now elicits the response of “Huh?”, or “What exactly do you do, or what does that mean?”, or “i just don’t get it.” Much of this has to do with the lack of clarity in what Innovation actually relates to and what is required.

Some would say that innovation requires a Blue Sky mentality – where the world is your oyster. Others believe that you just need a lot of money to be able to develop cool, sparkly things. And, some would say that it is just a marketing turn of the coin to insinuate that a company is actually working to be on the bleeding edge of their industry. I actually think it is a bit of all the above with strategic reasoning and clear sense of direction mixed in.

Where Innovation has taken a turn toward being a phrase people roll their eyes out is that it is often considered to be new or never-before-seen, disruptive and not always sustainable. What I find interesting is that innovation can lead to huge solutions in the High Tech, Low Tech, No Tech, Human Relationships, Government, Animals, Nature, Education, Eating, Playing… you get the picture.

The key point is knowing the users and determining the best route to take. And, the best route can usually be whittled down to SUSTAINED or DISRUPTIVE innovation.

SUSTAINED innovation is the act of making slight changes to a process or product in a somewhat stepped approach. An example might be the evolution of an operating system – whether that’s iOS, Windows, Android, etc. The goal is to keep those who are already invested in the way things work from getting too up-in-arms about an entirely new way. One such example of a sustained innovation that went too far was when Microsoft decided to do away with the Window button in the bottom left corner of the screen in Windows 8.

DISRUPTIVE innovation is just as it sounds. It is clearly a new way of looking at things. Perhaps the biggest example is Apple’s release of the iPhone. In a world of feature phones and a spattering of higher-function phones like the Blackberry, iPhone made huge presence in the market that changed mobile as we know it. The migration from feature phones to smartphones was not as quickly adopted as a sustained innovation might have been, but over time, the world generally moved to the other side of the disruption.

Last week, at the Museums And The Web Conference, Shelley Mannion of The British Museum presented a situation where they were able to be agile with their innovation of audio guides. They knew there were fans of the audio guides, but they were looking to change how they were used in order to generate more interest and more revenue. What they found quickly was that their innovation was too disruptive for the existing audience. In their testing, they found that most people hated it. What was smart, though, was their ability to quickly make changes to see a positive response during that initial exhibit.

Here’s where things get interesting…

The British Museum was able to take something that was disruptive and didn’t initially work and, rather than step backwards entirely, they continued to massage and work with it. Then, when the next exhibit came around, they were able to continue on the track and their audience warmed up to the new way of doing things – and actually celebrated it! What they had previously disliked with venom was now a positive due to the interlaced connection between audience and developers.

So, when looking for innovation, truly consider what steps will make sense both internally and externally. Be ready to act upon feedback in constructive rather than knee-jerk ways. And, definitely, don’t kill the innovation outright just because it didn’t take off. I’ve seen too many companies make this mistake, and many of them are really suffering economically because of it.

Think about it, if we had gone straight from the first Mercedes combustible engine directly to driver-less automobiles, would there have been an uptake like the iPhones? Most likely not. But without measured sustainable innovation balanced with disruption, we’d be nowhere close.

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