11 Aug 2015 14:09 IST

Not just innovation: sustaining or disrupting matters more

It can be big or small, new or a little bit different. It does not matter, it all starts with an ‘idea’

Taking off from where we left off, last week, we spoke about the importance of innovation to stay relevant and how not innovating in today’s business context means that, more often than not, you will be left far behind by competition. I had also shared with you some of my own experience, especially failures in innovation. However, in this article I am going to outline, using a few personal examples, of innovations that I have attempted with remarkable success. In doing this, I also point out some key lessons and learning. I couple this with relevant examples from industry.

Early in the 1990s, we came up with an idea, we borrowed from the consumer Market Research (MR) industry, which was then a unique concept as far as industrial MR was concerned. The idea called for offering syndicated reports in the downstream Chemical and Petrochemical industry.

One big learning, innovation does not mean something life-changing, but even something small which differentiates the product / service in a manner that customers value, qualifies to be classified an innovation.

You can also borrow ideas from what others have done in other industries to solve similar problems in a generic sort of way. This small innovation helped us in becoming almost overnight, a 100 client company from the sub-10 that we were at that point in time. These syndicated reports found great favour amongst a large number of companies who were interested in this sector without spending tonneas of money on customised market research; the syndicated reports enabled them to both spend less and evaluate a larger number of opportunities, a compelling proposition. The study was almost entirely funded from the advances that we received from clients.

This also gave us a number of collateral benefits:

> We were recognised as the first organised database producers of chemical/petrochemical market information. We thus got recognition from both the Indian Chemical Manufacturers Association (ICMA) and industry players.

> A number of our customers who decided to go further and evaluate one or more opportunities in the sector invited us to participate and submit proposals, this turned out to be our best marketing tool besides getting us revenues and clients

Pain point to entry point

In another instance, the end customers of our client valued the speed with which patent abstracts were included in the database from the time it was first published by the patent offices. When we talked to the client and understood his business we realised that this was a major pain point and possibly and entry point for us as well. We took the risk and offered this “innovation” to our client – that we would complete the entire process in 5 days (we later got this down to 24 hours) by using a completely online process using the internet and use of software (something that was just starting in the early 2000s) at least in the publishing industry.

We had to make investments in bandwidth, in training our people, in systems and software – we did this and this turned out to be a major plus for us as we went on to become the largest vendor for this client.

In the light of the above examples, I would like to define the process of innovation:

Innovation Vs Invention

Innovation is as simple as taking something existing and transforming it to something that creates wealth or improves the well being of society or both. If you are doing this already you are an innovator. An innovation can be big or small, brand new or a little bit different. It does not matter. But it has to all start with an idea.

The three steps to innovation are


(ii)Create and


The ideation process is very important and can be done in a number of ways. There are a number of ideas that float around; it is the process of capturing these ideas systematically, evaluating them against marketplace requirements, and implementing them with speed and accuracy that is the issue.

Some of the common ways to generate ideas are:

- Define the Problem

- Brainstorming

- Focusing on ‘What You Want’ (outcomes)

- Look at Parallel Problems and Solutions

- Look at Each Task as a Challenge and invite participation

- Open it out to employees, suppliers, etc

- Open innovation (seek outside expertise)

Once the ideation stage is completed, the idea needs to be evaluated for value in the marketplace, implementation capability and investments required. If it passes through these stages the next stage is field trials and customer feedback before it moves to the production stage.

Today, there are a number of third party sites such as Quirky.com that seeks to democratise innovation by enabling people to submit ideas, getting the crowd or experts to vet these ideas and if they are found suitable then taking it up for commercial production . Many such sites also help in marketing the product. The innovator usually gets a life – time royalty for the idea.

Invention, on the other hand, is a technical improvement that does not necessarily create wealth and is more from a technical point of view. All inventions need not qualify. Innovation can be of two types: Sustaining innovation and Disruptive innovation.

Sustaining Innovation

Sustaining innovation is all about ‘doing something better’. This is definitely needed and is possibly more applicable to mature products for instance, something like razor blades. Gillete has kept the interest and excitement alive in the razor market by innovating from a one-blade razor to now a five-blade razor.

This has kept interest alive and pre-empted competition, and has also enabled larger revenues for the company besides appealing to the younger and more affluent sections of the market.

However, sustaining innovation does not create explosive growth nor does it change the market dynamics in large measure.

Most companies are, to some extent, involved in sustaining innovation; this is required for survival in today’s competitive industry.

Disruptive Innovation

In new and young industries one finds more and more disruptive innovation. It has the following characteristics

> Playing the game completely Differently

> Creating an entirely new Market

> Transforming or destroying the current Market

> Introducing or changing products to become:

– Simpler

– More Affordable

– More Accessible

– Customizable

– Driving Growth mostly explosive / quantum growth

Today’s new industries are replete with examples of disruptive innovation;

Play station Vs Nintendo WII in the games console market

Both these have completely transformed the games market with easy to operate consoles, a large number of titles including third party ones etc.

Other examples that come to mind are:

Netflix provider of on-demand Internet streaming media that enables one to watch TV shows and movies anytime and anywhere. Has completely transformed the entertainment market.

Pandora enables one to listen to music that one loves – has transformed the music industry by using analytics to find and make available push the genre and type music that one loves.

Spotify is a digital music survive that has changed the music industry

Facebook has revolutionised the way one keeps in touch through out the world

Whats app has, again, changed the dynamics of telecommunication by disrupting the way one messages and keeps in touch. It has completely disrupted the telecommunication industry by using a very simple concept – use the internet to send simple messages at no extra or minimal cost. Here are some statistics on Whatsapp

-35 per cent of businesses Use VoIP

-Allows for one phone line

-Avoids long distance charges

In the transportation industry services like Uber, Ola and TaxiforSure etc have completely revolutionised the public transportation market and may even disrupt the passenger car segment in the years to come.

To summarise, disruptive innovation does one or more of the following and therein lies its value:

-Helps Create New Markets

-Disrupts an Existing Market and Value Network

-Displaces an Earlier Technology


-Designed for a Different Set of Consumers in a New Market

-Lowers Prices in Existing Market

Not all business can come up with disruptive innovation. However, many entrepreneurial start-ups as also larger companies are seeking to disrupt their industries with innovation that can change the way business is done. Larger companies are progressively changing the way they innovate by getting in smaller teams that can bring in an entrepreneurial mindset to the innovation process.

But bear in mind, within this whole innovation process, it is also useful to prioritize and keep ones focus on what one wants to do.

As Steve Jobs said: “I’m as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done. Innovation is saying no to a thousand things.”

(This article is the last in a two-part series on the subject of ‘Innovation and Enterprise’)