The ultimate guide to transforming your business with business insights

The Innovation Imperative: Incremental vs. Disruptive

How does innovation drive business? It's time to look at innovation beyond disruptive or incremental change to how it creates effectiveness and efficiency.

With so much talk about innovation in the marketing research industry, it’s easy to feel like innovation is being stuffed down our throats. We know we must innovate, but we just don’t have the inclination to go there. Innovation takes a lot of time and effort, and most of us are quite happy in our carefully maintained wheelhouses.

But not all innovation has to be expensive, strange, and daunting. Innovation can, and most often will, come in the form of tiny incremental improvements.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines innovation as:


By this definition, marketing research is an industry chock full of innovation, as new methods, practices, and ideas are constantly being introduced. However, a nuanced definition is needed here.

Dr. Oskar Korkman of Nokia talks about innovation a bit differently. He defines innovation as, “The improvement of an existing practice. There are no new innovations, but rather the development of existing practice and objects. Everything is incremental.”

Disruptive innovation is rare, and tends to happen in cycles. An age of disruption happens about every 10 years, and that is what makes what is happening now particularly exciting – and scary. The pace, quality, and range of innovation are exploding, with a wide range of industries being impacted.

However, in recent years, much innovation has been incremental and driven by a “convergence of convergence” – tools which facilitate convergence have themselves converged to form new tools. An example is cloud computing, which resulted from the convergence of increased computing power, network bandwidth, cheap storage, and virtualization.

Each era of disruptive innovation breeds a cycle of incremental innovation driven by these convergences, and although the pace may seem non-stop, the reality is that it is a fairly predictable process if you pay attention to what’s happening.  

We experience incremental innovations in research all the time. Rather than worrying about maintaining norms from 30 years ago, more and more of us are worrying instead about ensuring our traditional surveys reflect this decade of survey taking expectations. For example, ensuring that every survey question works quickly, easily, and intuitively on every device is where incremental innovations in the mobile survey space is focused.

Most importantly, we must remember that innovation is NOT the end goal. The end goal is not to choose the coolest research technology that generates the most “ooohs and aaahhhs,” but rather the one that best understands human behavior. If this means changing your strategy from asking people WHY they do something to asking people HOW they do something, or focusing not just on System 1, which is fast and intuitive, or just System 2, which is slow and deliberate, but rather embrace System 1 AND System 2 as the research objectives require, then that is incremental innovation.

Pragmatic Innovation

Where the rubber hits the road for research isn’t generally whether an innovation is disruptive or incremental, but rather does it address a business need.

From that perspective, innovation is really about leaps in effectiveness and efficiency. More effectiveness means doing something better than we have previously. More efficiency means we are able to do things faster or with less effort. Electricity is a more effective and efficient way to light homes than say, gas lamps or kerosene. Cars are more effective and efficient than horses. Google is a more efficient and effective way to search for information than a set of encyclopedias.

Leaps in efficiencies and effectiveness unlock value for the people they serve. Value is usually expressed in time, money, new capability, or experience. The most impactful innovations usually give people all of the above at great scale. For example, the washing machine is one of the most important innovations ever created. Its adoption by developing nations accelerated economic productivity drastically by liberating workers from the time spent hand-washing clothes. Now that’s delivering value.

Turning back to market research, a simple way to express the industry’s function is that it delivers credible, actionable market and customer understanding to decision makers. If we apply the notion that innovation is really about effectiveness and efficiency, innovations in market research need to deliver more accurate or actionable insights, or deliver the same level of insight faster with less effort, or a combination of the two.

That seems straight forward, and it is fairly simple when dealing with innovations of efficiency. The only issue in terms of judging efficiency innovations in market research is in their impact on effectiveness. If efficiency compromises quality – for instance, online sample that doesn’t meet the quality standards necessary – then the innovation does not deliver value.

On the other hand, the debate tends to be less straightforward with innovations of effectiveness. Not only is it more challenging to judge effectiveness, there is also an added wrinkle within market research. The wrinkle is that not only does an innovation need to be proved more effective; it has to be able to be normalized to previous methods.  Just being new and better isn’t always enough.

It has to be better and be able to be correlated to past results. As an analogy, imagine if every time you bought a new phone, you had to make sure you understood the impact on your speaking and texting style compared to previous phones. That might slow your upgrade process down just a bit.

With virtually all emerging technology platforms now conducting research as a core element, the market research business will now face even more challenges. It is now imperative for firms to find ways to deliver value via innovation of the existing business model, tools, and impact. We can seek inspiration from industries that have taken a hit with the advent of the internet, learn how to augment these emerging platforms, and determine ways to interpret them to deliver new insights and services. For example, the travel industry was severely hit with the online revolution, but what emerged was better packaging, more boutique firms, new applications, and a growing market for more players, such as Airbnb.

There is a world of opportunity for the research industry via innovation of all kinds; start the journey to that world today. 

Please share...

Join the conversation