How to recognise 3 kinds of innovation in your organisation

When I am asked to help a team with their innovation strategy, I always ask about their past innovation activities. Often I am told that they are not yet innovating, or that they innovate infrequently, or that they are planning to innovate more in the future. However, if you ask the team to think about recent attempts to change, improve and restructure their activities, they quickly come up with a long list of innovations that they never recognised as such. These improvements might have achieved a specific purpose, but perhaps they could have been leveraged to have a more profound effect on the organisational culture. Almost every opportunity to adapt something in an organisation is also an opportunity to strenghten the learning culture, build trust, deepen the use of knowledge, encourage experimentation and to be more innovative.

To help teams recognise how they might have innovated in the past, I explain three different kinds of innovation. It is by looking back that we can also look forward.

The most easily identifiable form of innovation is innovation aimed at developing new or improved products and services. In technical products this product development process may require deep knowledge of how to harness natural phenomena or use certain technology, while in other sectors like the food sector developing a new product may require a good understanding of consumer tastes and different ingredients. Not all new products require a complicated design and development process.

Process innovation is slightly more difficult and involves making improvements to existing products and services or designing completely new products and services, often in an incremental or ongoing way. Process innovation could be aimed at improving efficiency and reducing waste or costs, or it could be the introduction of new equipment and technologies into an existing process. While many smaller companies lack this process improvement ability in-house, even high-tech manufacturers depend on specialists external to the organisation. In places where these experts or specialists are not available, process improvement costs are much higher and improvements are more difficult to implement. In many industries, product innovation is made possible by new process innovations, so manufacturers who integrate new equipment into their production facilities may be able to offer new products and services simply by upgrading their systems. An interesting phenomenon is that enterprises that are good at continuous process improvement are often able to introduce many more product innovations, as they typically have internal systems for product development, product distribution and knowledge accumulation.

The third kind of innovation is focused on business model innovation and organisational design. This kind of innovation is all about internal organisation, functional specification, combining different kinds of internal expertise, knowledge and technology domains and being able to adapt the management of a company division based on differences in specific contexts. We include innovation in marketing strategies, innovation in supply chain integration, and innovate approaches to co-opting or working with customers as well as improved management models under this heading. Enterprises that are able to manage innovatively tend to be better at process innovation, resulting in more options and the ability to improve products or services.

Many improvements that my clients want to undertake span all three of these types of innovation. Yet, the way how you go about innovating are slightly more difficult and may require different team and expertise configurations.

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